Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Wild weather on the mountain

Fieldwork is an essential component of climate and glacier research, providing basic measurements as well as a foundation for theoretical and modeling studies. Yes, fieldwork can be tremendously fun, sometimes even yielding unexpected discoveries – yet it can also be difficult and dangerous. A successful fieldwork campaign requires alignment of numerous components and factors; some of these we can control, and others we must manage. For both categories, past experience and planning is helpful. Sometimes though, the outcome also requires good luck.

After 20 prior trips to my AWS on Kilimanjaro’s Northern Icefield, plans for October fieldwork came together within only a couple weeks. Telemetry of data revealed technical problems which could only be resolved by a visit to the station. However, budgetary constraints dictated that this trip would need to be done differently. While recognizing that a lighter and faster approach would reduce the factors we could control, and increase the required management of other factors, we decided that the potential rewards of a brief visit to the station outweighed the risks of this strategy. Supportive and generous collaborators* agreed to make the visit possible.

Our quickly-hatched plan was to acclimatize normally, and then in one day ascend the final 1000 meters, undertake 4-6 hours of work, cross the summit caldera, and descend the other side to rejoin our support team. Past experience on the mountain suggested to all involved that the concept was reasonable –given just a few hours of reasonable weather. For this trip, ‘reasonable’ weather meant conditions under which an ascent of the Western Breach was safe (i.e., cold and dry), followed by a few hours at the AWS without heavy snowfall, wind less than ~20 km/hr, and air temperature above -5 °C or so; any sun would be a bonus. Once finished at the station, we were confident about descending in almost any conditions.

Reasonable weather prevailed through our first two days on the mountain, followed by conditions more typical of the wet seasons (e.g., April-May). Warmth, rain, and wind appeared in the forecasts, and on day 3 became our reality on the mountain, conditions increasingly at odds with both our work needs and those required for the safety of all involved. Ascending in wind-driven rain to Arrow Glacier camp below the Western Breach, there was little ambiguity about what we were likely to encounter the following day – which proved accurate, as illustrated below and revealed by telemetry from the AWS. That afternoon a consensus emerged: continuing with our plan would unacceptably compromise safety, and that work at the AWS would almost certainly be impossible.

Disappointing? Absolutely. Station problems remain unresolved, and the 18-year nearly-continuous record may be compromised. In addition, not measuring and documenting the summit glaciers will prevent assessing the response of anomalous accumulation during the 2018 long rains. Furthermore, any compromise on fieldwork goals is disappointing in light of the carbon cost of traveling nearly 30,000 km. However, our decision to retreat was correct, for in contrast to several other groups on the mountain, we all returned safely.

Field scientists must fully exploit observational and quantitative opportunities during every moment in the field, and learn from every experience. This trip provided new insight into the development of weather systems on Kilimanjaro. Valuable photographs and observations of the slope glaciers were obtained, and new understandings were gained through interactions with others on the mountain. More difficult to accept was something we already knew, the false economy of an ambitious undertaking in too-little time. Future fieldwork must allow adequate time to accommodate difficult weather conditions, despite the higher financial cost of extended fieldwork time on Kilimanjaro summit glaciers (e.g., extra Park fees, staff salary premiums). Finally, the experience highlights the value of high-elevation climate and glacier data, which should never be taken for granted.

*Special thanks to Nicolas J. Cullen at University of Otago (New Zealand), and Thomas Mölg at Friedrich-Alexander-University (FAU) in Germany, for their encouragement and vital support!

Fig. 1. Timelapse of clouds over Kibo, 24 Oct. at 13:30 (~1 sec interval). Wind speeds began increasing on the 23rd, and remained high for 3-4 days. Airflow throughout our time on the mountain was from just south of east, as illustrated in Fig. 3 below.

Fig. 2. Kibo on 24 Oct. at 13:30 from near Karanga Camp. Although the mountain is quite snowy for mid-October, snowcover decreased during the days prior, due to rain and a high freezing level (note lack of fresh snow east of the Rebmann Glacier, on right-hand side of image).

Fig. 3. Airflow and relative humidity at 500 hPa over east Africa and Kilimanjaro (green circle), 24 Oct. at 14:00. Cyan color indicates RH above ~95%; 49 km/hr equates to ~30 MPH, not a particularly high windspeed for a mountain summit, but difficult to work in when humidity is high (see riming in Fig. 4). Source: (c) 2018 Cameron Beccario.

Fig. 4. Summit scenes early on 25 Oct., when apparently only 2 Norwegians and their guide reached the top. Photos courtesy of Dismas Kishingo, via Emanuel Mutta of SENE.

Fig. 5. Landsat 8 scene from 28 Oct. at 10:43 local time. Fresh snow on Kibo and Mawenzi accumulated over the prior ~4 days, when AWS data show dropping air temperature and 20+ cm of accumulation.

Fig. 6. The proverbial calm after the storm. Kibo as seen from Moshi, 28 October at 08:00 (just prior to the Landsat image above).

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Crater remains snowy

Ablation of 2018 snow continues, as evidenced by the 1 October image above. Nonetheless, extensive snowcover remains within Kibo crater as the extended dry season concludes (Sentinel-2 bands 4,3,2). The mountain's south side also remains snowy, making it difficult to easily distinguish between glaciers and snow on the image.

Trails up to the crater and along the rim to Uhuru Peak appear to be free of snow. However, where snowcover remains, penitentes are likely getting steadily larger.

On the Northern Icefield, telemetry of AWS measurements reveals a surface height increase of ~30 cm for the one-year period Oct. 2017 to Oct. 2018. This accumulation was concentrated in three intervals: the first half of January, the first week of March, and a week in mid-April. In contrast, ablation was especially pronounced through the entire month of February this year. 

Whether 2018 accumulation endures will depend upon October and November weather, which typically varies considerably from year to year. Since mid-May, when peak accumulation occurred, the rate of surface lowering due to ablation has been rather constant at ~12 cm/month.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Seasonal snowcover change

Two views of Kibo from the plains below reveal that snowcover has largely ablated from the mountain's slopes. From the northeast (upper image) dry slopes appear capped by a fringe of snow on the crater rim, while the Northern Icefield is visible in the second image.

Both images above were taken during the 2018 Kilimanjaro Stage Run, a wonderful way to experience the mountain and the diverse cultures residing on the flanks. Adventurous runners of all abilities should look into this fun event!

Below is another view of snow on the mountain, acquired one week later. Nearly complete snowcover remains within the summit crater, although it appears that the trail to Uhuru Peak is now free of snow. Lower on the mountain, trails and camps are visible in this European Space Agency image.

Despite the extent of snow within the crater, telemetry of measurements from the Northern Icefield indicate that the glacier surface lowered by 15-20 cm, likely due to sublimation, melting, and compression of long-rain snow. This snow benefits glacier mass balance by adding mass and reducing energy exchange (e.g., reflection of solar radiation) - briefly reducing the glacier recession rate.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kibo summit snow


In mid-July, Kibo remains almost entirely snow covered at high elevations. The image above depicts this snowcover along the crater rim on 10 July, looking toward Uhuru Peak with the upper Deckens Glacier on the left. Snowdepth varies considerably in mountainous terrain, due to both snowfall and ablation processes, yet nearly one meter of snow remains on the Northern Icefield (0.98 m). This represents net accumulation since the beginning of March. Relative to the glacier surface in early October - when we visited for fieldwork - the net increase in surface height is 0.72 m.

Additional detail on Kibo snow is provided by the images below. The first is a Sentinel-2 image from 13 July, with uniform snowcover in the crater and extending down all slopes. Note some thinning and emergence of bare spots in the past few weeks (see earlier posts). Below the satellite image is one from just below Stella Point, showing the depth of accumulation on 10 July. The final image also looks toward Uhuru Peak (with 40+ people), across the Furtwängler Glacier, and towards the Northern Icefield; penitentes in the foreground typically develop in deeper snow at this time of year, due to sublimation. They will likely keep growing for the next couple months.

Many thanks to our friend Timba in Moshi for providing these images!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Kibo remains snowy, as illustrated by the Sentinel-2 image above from 3 July. Over the past month, the snowline has been only slowly moving up the mountain. Accumulation at high elevation and within the crater has been ablating slightly; compare the image above with those in earlier postings.

Extensive snowcover on the glaciers and surrounding slopes is keeping the albedo high, minimizing mass loss... at least for the moment.

Kilimanjaro is not alone in being unseasonally snowy in recent months. For example, in the Karakoram Mountains (Pakistan) climbing teams on mountains such as K2 are finding dangerous avalanche conditions due to heavy snowfall, during the core climbing season. More details can be found here.

Quelccaya Ice Cap and the Cordillera Vilcanota in Peru are also unusually snowy for July, the result of La Niña accumulation during the wet season (esp. DJF) and atypical dry-season snowfall in the past couple months.

In Northeast Greenland, the winter of 2018 brought twice as much snow as the long-term average, and snowcover into early July remains so extensive that Sanderlings and other shorebirds may not even attempt nesting this year. The late snow is having large consequences for the ecosystem.

Finally, snow on portions of the Greenland Ice Sheet is resulting in the "least surface ice loss in decades". As Jason Box notes via Twitter (@climate_ice), these persistent extremes in patterns of atmospheric circulation are an expected signature of climate change.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Dry season begins

One of the most-reliable aspects of Kibo summit climate is when the extended dry season begins; typically between late May and early June. Despite considerable snow accumulation through 2018 long rains (see posts below), the dry season initiation this year appears to be right "on schedule".

Above is a view of Kibo from Moshi just after 7 am on 28 May (Simon Mtuy credit), after a long period in which the mountain was shrouded in clouds. Snowcover has changed little since March.

The timelapse below includes images every 5 days for the past month, from ESA Sentinel-2 L1C data. Note the decreasing cloud cover thickness and extent, and thinning of snowcover on the mountain flanks. Telemetry of measurements from the summit reveals little change in snowdepth on the Northern Icefield through the interval.

In the months ahead, all seasonal snow will likely sublimate and melt, exposing glacier ice to radiant and turbulent energy. Without the bright, protective snowcover, the area and thickness of the glaciers will continue to diminish.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Snowcover update

Ablation has dominated over accumulation on Kibo recently, yet the mountain remains snowy. On a Sentinel-2 image from yesterday (above), note the rising snowline and thinner snowcover on ridges and east-facing slopes - relative to images posted previously. With minimal clouds over the summit caldera, the Northern Icefield margin can now be distinguished, just to the northeast of the Reusch Crater (outer circular feature).

Below are some images contributed by Adam Quenneville, from his visit to the summit on ~26 April. The panorama looks south over the upper Kersten Glacier from near Uhuru Peak. Note how the windblown and frozen snow surface allowed climbers to walk without breaking through. The middle image shows the Northern Icefield (upper left) and the Furtwängler Glacier margin - including the tiny remaining eastern fragment. Adam's team is shown at Crater Camp in the lowest image, with the Furtwängler and Northern Icefield in the near and far background, respectively.