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San Francisco Monday, 19 February, 2001, 00:50 GMT
Kilimanjaro's white peak to disappear
Kilimanjaro: The ice could be gone in 20 years
By Jonathan Amos in San Francisco

The beautiful ice fields on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa could completely melt away in the next 20 years if the Earth continues to warm at the rate many scientists now claim.

The calculation comes from Professor Lonnie Thompson, of Ohio State University, who has made an aerial survey of the famous Tanzanian peak.

He said comparisons with previous mapping showed 33% of Mt Kilimanjaro's ice had disappeared in the last two decades - 82% had gone since 1912. Studies on other tropical peaks had revealed a similar picture, he told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He warned this melting could have serious repercussions for drinking water supply, crop irrigation, hydroelectric production and tourism.

Accelerating retreat

"Kilimanjaro is the number one foreign-currency earner for the Tanzanian Government. Twenty thousand tourists go there every year because one of the attractions is to see ice at three degrees south of the equator. But I think there is a real possibility that that ice will be gone by 2015."

Professor Thompson has spent about 20 years studying the tropical ice fields on the mountains of South America, Africa, China and Tibet.

He told the AAAS meeting that the Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes had shrunk by 20% since 1963. And its largest outlet glacier, known as Qori Kalis, was accelerating in its retreat - 155 metres per year in the last survey compared with just 48 metres per year in the previous study period in 1995-98.

"The glaciers are like natural dams," he said. "They store the snow in the wet season and they melt in the dry season and bring water flow to the rivers."

Climate 'archive'

He said their loss was a blow also to science which used the compacted ice built up in the glaciers over decades and centuries to investigate past climate.

"The loss of these frozen 'archives' threatens water resources for hydroelectric power production, irrigation for crops and municipal water supplies. Moreover, the melting of these smaller ice caps and glaciers leads to sea level rise."

Professor Thomspon's work is part of a large effort, under the auspices of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), to understand how the global environment is changing. According to the IGBP's executive director, Dr Will Steffan, Thompson's work adds to the growing body of evidence of a rapidly changing Earth.

"Retreating glaciers is one of many symptoms that the Earth is undergoing dramatic changes within our lifetime. Climate change is just one piece in a much bigger puzzle."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Professor Lonnie Thompson
"We should see the disappearance of tropical glaciers as a big caution"
The BBC's John Duce
"Professor Thompson has spent about 20 years studying the tropical ice cap"
See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
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