Sunday, July 27, 2008

Kilimanjaro's Disappearing Glacier Trick

Global warming and Kilimanjaro: where have Kili's glaciers gone?

On August 3rd I will depart for my 8th trip to climb Kilimanjaro located in East Africa in the country of Tanzania. Follow along by signing up for our daily trip dispatches.

Much has been written and discussed regarding the retreating glaciers of Africa's highest mountain. There have been several extensive studies performed recently on the mountain in hopes of gaining some insight as to how quickly they are disappearing as well as whether it can be exclusively blamed on global warming.

Of the 19 square kilometres of glacial ice to be found on Africa, only 2.2 square kilometres can be found on Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, both figures used to be much higher.

Kili’s famous glaciers have shrunk by a whopping 82% since the first survey of the summit in 1912. Even since 1989, when there were 3.3 square kilometres, there has been a decline of 33%. At that rate, say the experts, Kili will be completely ice-free within the next decade or two.‘We found that the summit of the ice fields has lowered by at least 17 metres since 1962,’ said Professor Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University. ‘That’s an average loss of about a half-metre (a foot and a half) in height each year.’

The big question, therefore, is not whether Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are shrinking, but why – and should we be concerned? Certainly glacial retreats are nothing new: Hans Meyer, the first man to conquer Kilimanjaro, returned in 1898, nine years after his ascent, and was horrified by the extent to which the glaciers had shrunk. The ice on Kibo’s slopes had retreated by 100m on all sides, while one of the notches he had used to gain access to the crater in 1889 – and now called the Hans Meyer Notch – was twice as wide, with the ice only half as thick.

Nor are warnings of the complete disappearance of the glaciers anything new: in 1899 Meyer himself predicted that they would be gone within three decades, and the top of Kili would be decorated with nothing but bare rock.
What concerns today’s scientists, however, is that this current reduction in size of Kili’s ice-cap does seem to be more rapid and more extensive than previous shrinkages. But is it really something to worry about, or merely the latest in a series of glacial retreats experienced by Kili over the last few hundred years?

Professor Thompson and his team are attempting to find answers to all these questions. In January and February 2000 they drilled six ice cores through three of Kibo’s glaciers in order to research the history of the mountain’s climate over the centuries. (Follow this link to read a BBC report of their work). A weather station was also placed on the Northern Icefield to see how the current climate affects the build-up or destruction of glaciers.

Although results are still coming in from Professor Thompson’s work, early indications were not good. In a speech made at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February 2001, the professor declared that, while he cannot be sure why the ice is melting away so quickly, what is certain is that if the glaciers continue to shrink at current rates, the summit could be completely ice-free by 2015.

Whatever the reasons, if Kilimanjaro is to lose its snowy top, the repercussions would be extremely serious: Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are essential to the survival of the local villages, supplying their drinking water, the water to irrigate their crops and, through hydroelectric production, their power; never mind the blow the loss of the snow-cap would deal to tourism.
And these are just the local consequences. If the scientists are to be believed, what is happening on Kilimanjaro is a microcosm of what could face the entire world in future. Even more worryingly, more and more scientists are now starting to think that this future is probably already upon us.

I have personally witnessed a perceptible change in the position of the glaciers in my annual pilgrimage. That being said, last year was the snowiest trip I have experienced with miles of the mountain blanketed in 6 month old snow and ice. This might lead a first timer to believe that the glacial retreat is a myth. But a closer look reveals that the glaciers themselves are indeed moving. And in glacier years, a noticeable change in eight years is a fraction of a second. I am concerned and would urge all to make a concerted effort to accept Al Gores challenge of disconnecting from fossil fuels by 2018. As with most things satisfying will be extremely challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Playing Field is Even

This past weekend I participated in what was labeled as the Real Deal Inclusive Adventure Race. At first I thought this might mean that all my drinks and food were built into the price of admission and that I would not have to open my wallet for the entire weekend. And although this was ultimately true, the "inclusive" descriptor was meant to relate how this adventure race would be centered around teams that had at least 2 "disabled" team members.

As usual, I was teamed up with super blind dude Erik as I had been for our previous year of adventure racing back in 2003 (see Influence of a Blind Dude below). However each team was also required to have one paraplegic athlete as well as one "able bodied" athlete (typically blind or amputee). Our para athlete for the race was a wonderful paralympic downhill gold medalist named Sarah Will. It was clear during our initial training day that Sarah was as solid as they come. Although she weighs 90 lbs soaking wet, she has a dogged determination and ability to just knuckle down and get her task done. I was proud to have her on my team.

The weekend was a wonderful mix of athletes...many very accomplished in the world of paralympics...all there to compete and share a love for adventure and camaraderie. Throughout the two day event, the teams were required to race through the mountains of Colorado on such disciplines as white water rafting, mountain biking, climbing, rappelling and cross country navigating. All of these activities are individually quite fun...but even more so when you are required to go full out race mode and stack each of them into 48 hours on very little sleep. This is the nature of adventure racing and for some twisted's a hoot.

Going into the 2nd day of the race our team, Lumbar Liquidators (who generously anteed up our $10,000 entry fee) held a 35 second lead over the 2nd place Powerbar team. At this point all we had to do was paddle strong on the early morning white water section and then successfully navigate a 12 mile orienteering course. Just prior to entering the morning paddle the race director told the teams that we could choose any 2 of our team members to do the 12 mile mountain run. This was good news for us as we felt confident that my teammate Rob and I would be quite capable of cruising fast through the mountains while quickly finding the subsequent 'checkpoints' along the way. Surely we would be able to run most of the course and with our navigational skills honed from years spent mountaineering and adventure racing there would hardly be a team that could challenge us. We had it wrapped up. And then, just to boost our confidence we saw upon exiting the rafts and heading out on the course that the Powerbar team was sending out their "able bodied" athlete who was a woman named Amy that was a very accomplished Ironman amputee. She had a below the knee amputation and one of those sweet bionic looking prosthetics...and man, she could fly on that thing. But come could a one legged woman and her teammate beat Rob and I in the mountains?

About 4 miles into an uphill slog Rob and I had yet to be able to shake the Powerbar team. They just kept right on top of us...following our every move. As our GPS and maps were telling us that were closing in on our checkpoint, Rob decided to ascend up a narrow creek drainage to inspect whether the checkpoint was hidden away in the ravine. I continued up the ridge towards where my GPS was pointing me. After a few minutes it became clear that I was headed in the right direction and Rob was not. About this time, Powerbar blew past me on their way to the appropriate checkpoint about a half mile around the ridge. I ran back to the point I last saw Rob and began to vain. I stood there for what felt like an hour...scanning the horizon for Rob, waiting to catch a glimpse of him. Then it was clear that the only option for me was to head to the checkpoint and hope that Rob figured out his misdirection and reoriented. 30 minutes later Rob appeared down in the valley. The rules of adventure racing state that team members must always be in sight of each other, so clearly we had already screwed up...which meant that I was required to sit at the checkpoint and wait for Rob to ascend the hill up to me before we could both head back down towards the finish line. As Rob finally reached me, it was clear that he had expended ALOT of energy while lost and then climbing up to my position. His face lost all emotion as the second he reached me after 20 minutes of running uphill I immediately forced him into a powersprint back down the hill.

We ran the remaining 9 miles to the finish only to finish 4 minutes behind the Powerbar team. It made for an exciting race and will make for some really good TV in the fall when NBC airs the Jeep World of Sports which will feature the Real Deal Inclusive Adventure Race.

A wonderful lesson was learned...we all come to the field with the same tools. Its just that some of us use our tools in more effective ways than others. We got beat by a one legged woman in a race through the mountains. I love it!
Check out the Denver Post article on the race.