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The Shrinking Glaciers of Kilimanjaro: Can Global Warming Be Blamed?

The Kibo ice cap, a "poster child" of global climate change, is being starved of snowfall and depleted by solar radiation

Phillip W. Mote, Georg Kaser

Figure%201.%20South%20Cascade%20Glacier%20and%20KilimanjaroClick to Enlarge ImageThe shrinking glacier is an iconic image of global climate change. Rising temperatures may reshape vegetation, but such changes are visually subtle on the landscape; by contrast, a vast glacier retreated to a fraction of its former grandeur presents stunning evidence of how climate shapes the face of the planet. Viewers of the film An Inconvenient Truth are startled by paired before-and-after photos of vanishing glaciers around the world. If those were not enough, the scars left behind by the retreat of these mountain-grinding giants testify to their impotence in the face of something as insubstantial as warmer air.

But the commonly heard—and generally correct—statement that glaciers are disappearing because of warming glosses over the physical processes responsible for their disappearance. Indeed, warming fails spectacularly to explain the behavior of the glaciers and plateau ice on Africa's Kilimanjaro massif, just 3 degrees south of the equator, and to a lesser extent other tropical glaciers. The disappearing ice cap of the "shining mountain," which gets a starring role in the movie, is not an appropriate poster child for global climate change. Rather, extensive field work on tropical glaciers over the past 20 years by one of us (Kaser) reveals a more nuanced and interesting story. Kilimanjaro, a trio of volcanic cones that penetrate high into the cold upper troposphere, has gained and lost ice through processes that bear only indirect connections, if any, to recent trends in global climate.

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