Vanishing glaciers of Mount Kenya

In 1893, the famous British geologist of the ‘rift valley’ fame, Dr John W Gregory led the first scientific expedition up Mount Kenya but could not make it past the ice glaciers to reach the summit. The mountain top was decked in ice and snow. He spent several hours at the Lewis Glacier at 15,000 feet before descending.

The next successful attempt – after several tries hindered by the impenetrable forests and glaciers – was by Sir Halford Mackinder and his companions, Ollier and Brocherel. They were the first to conquer the summit – Batian at 17,340 feet – reaching it at noon on 13 September 1899. They had to cross over a gigantic carpet of ice – the Lewis Glacier.

The climbs described are very different from scaling Africa’s second highest mountain and Kenya’s tallest today. Looking at Batian on a clear morning at the start of 2017, Benson Maina the naturalist at Serena Mountain Lodge points to Nelion the second highest peak. To summit it, one has to cross the Lewis Glacier which is Mt Kenya’s largest glacier. Its neighbouring glacier, the Gregory no longer exists.

“The glaciers are rapidly disappearing,” says Maina who has scaled the mountain dozens of times since 2010. For thousands of years, the three-million-old volcano was covered by an ice-cap.   It’s estimated that in the next 30 years, all the glaciers on Mount Kenya will have disappeared – largely because of our increasing dependence on hydrocarbons that’s changing the climate and making the planet hotter.

“Until a few years ago, it was impossible to ascent to the lobelia zone at 11,500 feet without proper climbing shoes because it was so wet and boggy. Now l can walk up in my safari shoes.” Lobelia is flowering plant only found in the alpine zones of the East African mountains.

That’s not the only change on Kenya’s tallest mountain that once boasted of snow-covered peaks atop the equator – which the German missionary Dr Ludwig Krapf first reported on 3rd December 1849. Ironically, the first glacier to disappear on the mountain is the Krapf Glacier in 1926 – and out of the 16 known glaciers that were there a century ago, only six or seven remain today – and are melting fast.

Krapf was also the first to infer that there were glaciers on the mountain because the people living around the mountain – the Embu – told him of white matter that rolled down the mountain with loud noise – and that nobody climbed the mountain because of the intense cold.

Glacier Meltdown

The Lewis has been surveyed intensively since 1934 together with other major tropical glaciers in the world. In a 1995 survey, it was reported ‘climatic forcing of the glacier recession has accentuated in recent years’.

In the 1980s, the area of glaciers on the mountain was measured, and recorded as about 0.7 square kilometres – far smaller than the first observations made in the 1890s. According to the Mountain Club of Kenya there is less new snow accumulating in winter every year than melting in summer, leaving the mountain with no formation of new ice.

“In the last twenty years, we have seen less rainfall and hence the rivers drying up,” continues Maina as we stroll through the forest on the lower slopes. “This is the first Christmas we have had without any rain.”

Mount Kenya known as the country’s water tower is the source of many rivers and streams that feed into the mighty Tana – Kenya’s longest river – and the Ewaso Nyiro that is the life lung of the arid north. Millions of people depend on the mountain for water.

In 2014, English photographer Simon Norfolk spent 18 days on Mount Kenya at 16,000 feet to dramatically portray the silent demise of the Lewis that’s happening rapidly on a geological timescale – but slowly over many generations in human timescale that most people aren’t even aware of the disappearing act. In the middle of the night, using a makeshift flaming torch, he walked the lines of the vanished edges of the glacier to show the dramatic shrinking of the glacier.

Things are grim on God’s mountain – the abode of Ngai, the revered god of the Kikuyu, the community living around it. In the last eighty years the Lewis has disappeared by 90 per cent.

The Kenya Forestry Service in 2008 started the PELIS scheme — Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme involving communities living by the forests in livelihood improvement programmes. Under PELIS, plots are rented out for three years to registered individuals in Community Based Organizations. Farmers are not allowed to settle in the forests with no dogs or livestock allowed in. They attend to the planted trees, intercropping with potatoes in an effort to stop communities from straying into the indigenous forests of the mountain national park. Serena Mountain Lodge distributes free seedlings to support the farmers with the reforestation programme.

On a national scale Kenya has ratified the Paris agreement on climate change which means it has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. It remains to be seen how seriously this pledge will be enforced. In the meantime, on a personal level becoming conscious consumers and less wasteful might help the glaciers on God’s mountain.

Fact File

Mount Kenya was listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997

The first thorough survey of the mountain was not undertaken until 1966.

Serena Mountain Lodge on slopes of Mount Kenya
Serena Mountain Lodge on slopes of Mount Kenya

Read more on  Mountain Serena Lodge

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