No Snows on Kilimanjaro

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Hemingway crouches next to a leopard, holding his hunting rifle.
Ernest Hemingway: The writer as big game hunter (alive), poses with leopard (dead) in East Africa.
National Portrait Gallery
POSTED 23 FEB 2001 One look and he knew. It was global warming, and it was written in the ice capping Africa's tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro.

The amazing thing about global warming is that it's painless, Lonnie Thompson thought as he struggled with a frozen gear in an ice drill. Everybody thinks global warming will hurt. It doesn't. Not yet, anyway.

(The Why Files stands behind these scientific facts. But if you're sick of mock Hemingway, you can read the straight story.)

"The journey that never ends," some natives called the great mountain. The ice-cap that will end soon, Thompson mused as the bit churned tropical ice. Kilimanjaro will still get snow, but it will be too warm for that snow to gather.

His first African safari came after the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had been slashed to ribbons by the German dive bombers in Spain. He had sought solace in wine, women and wild animals and come to Africa to see truth, beauty and death in the shadow of the great mountain.

In those remote years, Kilimanjaro was crowned with a white hat. The ice was pure and fearless as a charging lion.

The end of something
Thompson held a print from 1912. The old photo was taken from a Sopwith Camel biplane piloted by an English tea planter who later went mad with loneliness. Thompson held another photo, this one made in 2000.

A close-up of the icecap shows ice with some rock poking through. ABOVE: The icecap on Kilimanjaro, at the border of Kenya and Tanzania near the equator, seen in 1912.
Kilimanjaro photos courtesy Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University

BELOW: Kilimanjaro's ice cap lost 82 percent of its area by 2000.
Brown mountain against a blue sky, streaks of white mark the ice caps on Kilimanjaro.

You could look or you could not look. But if you looked, you could not mistake it. Kilimanjaro's frozen crown was melting fast.

The ice cap had lost 82 percent of its area in 88 years. Thompson, a professor of geology at Ohio State University, finished gutting a Thompson's (no relation) gazelle, stood, and heaved the entrails to the vultures. In Africa, the vultures are always ready, he thought as he wiped his hands.

He fumbled for a pencil, found the one he'd snatched from Harry's Bar -- the logo was still legible, but barely, on the barrel -- and calculated on an envelope from the Nairobi Safari Club. Yes, in a decade or two, the ice would be gone. The ice would be not-ice.

It would be history. Forgotten like the Republican Government he'd defended from the fascists in Spain.

Trophy head of a Thompson's gazelleEven before the Spanish nightmare, Thompson was known among the used-up writers, the burned-out Freudians and the gin-drenched musicians in the Paris cafés for his icy obsession . They would murmur into midnight glasses of Pernod that drilling old ice was Thompson's attempt to reclaim the icy lakes of his lost youth in Michigan.

Vaguely nauseated by the feckless, babbling scribes, Thompson gazed at the looming mountain. Ice seldom happens at 3 degrees south latitude, but here it was as unmistakable as the ring left by a bottle of cold cerveza on a rough wooden bartop.

To freeze or freeze not
Just since 1989, Kilimanjaro's ice cap had declined by one-third, Thompson knew.

Global warming -- a monster heat wave that men in their folly had probably caused by burning too much fossil fuel -- had already hit this ice cap above the arid plain where Thompson had hunted oryx with Frances Butterworth-Ashfield, the English countess who had taught him that when a man is charged by an elephant and he has only an ice drill with dead batteries as protection against that charging, he protects his loved ones with an ice drill.

Africa has always been special to Thompson. But her ice was not. He and his associates had seen the same thing in Tibet. The largest plateau on Earth had once been dotted with glaciers the way a leopard's back is dotted with spots. Now the glaciers were ice-becoming-water. The leopard was losing its spots.

Thompson's mind flickered to the incomparable but unreachable Frances, Frances of the alluring-but-distant green eyes. Then he knew that vice may be nice, but ice is nicer. By measuring oxygen isotopes, Thompson found that the air in Tibet had never been this warm, at least not since the glaciers formed. Using an ivory-and-ibex-horn abacus taken from a dead militiaman near Portofino, Thompson calculated that Tibet is now warming by 0.16 degrees Celsius per decade.

The big-hearted river
Even more alarming news awaited in Peru. He'd visited after trolling for marlin in the Gulf Stream with the unloyal pescador Julio. In the Peruvian Andes, the glaciers were melting faster as the years passed.

Before, when money was tight and climate research less fashionable than safari boots on a Roman piazza, Thompson had strapped a camera to the leg of an Andean condor. A comparison with recent photos told Thompson -- the shock hit like a shot of green rum in a Cuban cantina -- that the front of a glacier from the Quelccaya ice cap was melting at 155 meters per year. Between 1960 and 1978, it was shrinking less than five meters per year.

Glacier occupies the entire center of the picture; glacier flows down from icecap at the top of picture. ABOVE: The Qori Kalis glacier in Peru, shown in 1978.
Glacier photos courtesy Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University.

BELOW: The Qori Kalis glacier in Peru in 2000.
A lake has formed in front of the glacier, and the glacier has retreated toward the back of the picture.

Recalling the wasted hours with the gonna-bes and has-beens along the Champs Elysees, he wondered whether even the price of café-au-lait had risen that quickly.

Snapping back to reality, Thompson knew. When the glaciers disappeared, the hydroelectric generators downstream would stop. Lima would darken. Peru would burn more fossil fuels for electricity. It would make more carbon dioxide and more global warming.

It was a vicious cycle and it would melt other ice in other places.

For him the ice melts
It was true, then, what the green-eyeshaded climate modelers in New York and Geneva had been muttering late at night, as their giant computers crackled and cooled, the last numbers crunched. The fastest warming in human history was as clear as the glow of pixels on a 15-inch screen.

Earth's lower atmosphere was already half a degree Celsius hotter than when the great white hunters shot large mammals on the African savanna a century ago. A century from now, the climate could be five degrees Celsius hotter. That would be the fastest known warming in global history.

Thompson knew you could never prove why climate changes. Not the way a matador can prove that he's more smart and more fast and more fearless than a bull. But you could try to explain. The high-altitude melting, he figured, was likely due to global warming. Rising temperatures at sea level would lift more water vapor high into the atmosphere, and it would carry the latent heat that had caused the evaporation just as a safari porter would haul firewood for the sahibs. And when the water vapor condensed into snow, it would release that heat, melting high-altitude glaciers and icecaps.

But if proof of the link between carbon dioxide and global warming remained as elusive as a pack of hyenas in the African twilight, the overall picture was growing clearer with every passing year.

Sea level is rising. 1998 was probably the warmest year on record. And on Feb. 16, 2000, 3,000 climate scientists in the International Panel on Climate Change had stopped pussy-footing about human mucking of the atmosphere. Now the beancounters barked like a German 88 millimeter gun: "Projected climate changes during the 21st century have the potential to lead to future large-scale and possibly irreversible changes in Earth systems, resulting in impacts on continental and global scales."

On February 19, 2001, a Reuters telegraph report hadn't masked the situation: "The scientists said they foresaw glaciers and polar icecaps melting, countless species of animals, birds and plant life dying out, farmland turning to desert, fish-supporting coral reefs destroyed, and small island states sunk beneath the sea."

The old ice and the sea
Thompson shouldered the elephant gun he'd bought from a game tracker for protection. The ibex-hide sling bit his shoulder on the long trudge down Kilimanjaro. Reaching camp, Thompson settled into the canvas stool and gulped the old whiskey. His left hand fingered the white bull that is a blank page and fed it into the Underwood. The typewriter was a Spanish manual he'd won at poquér from a correspondent for a Loyalist paper.

map of world, with Kilimanjaro, Tibet, and Qori Kalis highlighted

Glaciers in these tropical locations are melting fast.

He had to admit that it was true what the amateurs and auteurs thought. The tropical glaciers did remind him of summers at the lake in Michigan, where his father taught him to shoot squirrel and bear too well and yet not well enough, and where the ice in the Moxie always melted before he'd thought of the right way to describe the joy and pain of hunting for his English teacher Mrs. Williams, who preached that some good people become writers, and some people become good writers, but that good people never become good writers.

But that was another story. Maybe he'd have time to write it after the last tropical glacier had melted into the ocean.

Hunting, pecking, he told the journal the bad news: "In the tropics, any glacier we have measurements on is retreating, and retreating faster than before." Perhaps in a better world, he thought, the snow also freezes.

-- David (In Earnest) Tenenbaum

Editor's Note: The science is accurate, but we decided to have fun with the presentation. To have the facts and have not the imitation Hemingway.  






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