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Farm fires hasten melting of Kilimanjaro's glaciers

Scientist: All snow could be gone by 2020

From Jeff Koinange

Glaciers on Kilimanjaro show signs of melting.
Glaciers on Kilimanjaro show signs of melting.

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CNN's Jeff Koinange climbed Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro to get a look at an environmental treasure that's increasingly threatened. (December 2)
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MOUNT KILIMANJARO, Tanzania (CNN) -- Fires set by farmers to clear land for crops are hastening glacial melting on Mount Kilimanjaro, and one scientist predicts that all snow will be gone from Africa's highest peak by 2020.

The melting, a loss of about 300 cubic meters a month, is irreversible and will have devastating impact on the terrain and on tourism. Each year, about 10,000 tourists scale Kilimanjaro's famous peak.

Global warming makes the melting inevitable, but it would be slower if farmers stopped the burning which poses additional threats to the forests and ecosystem.

Those simple fires spread, indiscriminately setting off a series of events that lead to entire forests being reduced to ashes. And the forests are essential to the generation of rain. Less forest means less rain. Less rain means imminent drought and famine.

With less and less rain falling on Africa's highest peak and global warming increasing at an alarming rate, one of Africa's icons that's come to symbolize a continent's beauty soon will be a thing of the past.

The Tanzanian government has taken aggressive steps to designate the Kilimanjaro area as a national park and heritage site and to educate farmers about the hazards of burning. But the land-clearing practice continues.

And the drought-famine cycle remains a familiar one on a continent where population growth far outstrips the availability of arable land.

Scientists studying changing weather patterns in the region are especially alarmed by how those fires will affect Africa's most famous symbol.

"It is now estimated that by the year 2020, there will be no glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro," said Christian Lambrechts of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Kilimanjaro's glacial rivers -- once bursting with mountain spring water -- have been reduced to babbling brooks because the glaciers that spawn these rivers are shrinking.

The snows of Kilimanjaro are a popular tourist attraction, drawing nearly 10,000 visitors each year.
The snows of Kilimanjaro are a popular tourist attraction, drawing nearly 10,000 visitors each year.

German scientist, Andreas Hemp, who says despite the meltdown, the priority right now is not to save the glaciers.

"Most people figure they see the glaciers, OK, there's water up there, we're getting our water from this. It's not true," said Hemp of Bayreuth University. "To preserve the forest this is the most important thing on Kilimanjaro."

During a climb on Kilimanjaro, Hemp brought with him a bagful of gadgets. They look simple and crude, but he insists they are important for monitoring everything from rainfall collection to changes in climate conditions. He also has to install a weather station on the summit. The last one mysteriously disappeared.

"Even without its glaciers Kilimanjaro and its forest bed are a very important part of the ecosystem of northern Tanzania," Hemp said, "and I think there's some hope that we can preserve this function of the forest and Kilimanjaro. "

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