Tuesday, November 21, 2017

South-side glaciers

As late as the 1980s, three distinct bodies of ice remained on Kilimanjaro's caldera rim and spilled over onto the slopes. A century earlier, these icefields - the Northern, Eastern, and Southern - were more-or-less connected as one large ice cap. The map below (after Hastenrath, 1984) depicts the three icefields along with their outlet glaciers, which became more distinct as the ice thinned and retreated.

The mountain's south side is shown in the image above, from a rarely-seen perspective above the village of Mweka. The Diamond Glacier can be seen on the left-hand side; this thin feature appears more like a perennial snowpatch than a glacier, supported by the recent appearance of rocks protruding through the snow and/or ice. At the center of the image is the Kersten Glacier, which separated into upper and lower sections ~10 years ago. Two small blocks of ice left of the Kersten are all that remain of the Heim Glacier, which rivaled the Kersten in length 20-25 years ago. The fragmented ice on the right-hand side is what remains of the Decken Glacier. And in the upper-right corner is the Rebmann Glacier; this portion of the former Southern Icefield is visible from the trail between Stella Point and Uhuru Peak - as well as from Barafu Camp.

Glaciers on Kilimanjaro remain beautiful, and continue to reveal secrets of both their history and that of the mountain's climate. The "Roof of Africa" will be a very different place when the glaciers are gone.

Friday, October 20, 2017

At the summit: days #92-96 in the crater

This month we returned to Kilimanjaro's summit glaciers and automated weather stations, 14 months since our last visit (Aug. 2016). Yes, the changes were dramatic - everywhere we looked.

This post provides a few glimpses of the remaining ice, still incredibly beautiful. Once an initial inspection is done on recovered AWS data, a subsequent post will provide an overview.

Helping out on this fieldwork were Spencer and Chang'a (Fig. 1). This was both of their first times on the mountain and both brought new insights and questions, providing stimulating discussions during the ascent and in camps. Dr. Ladislaus Chang'a is Director of Research and Applied Meteorology at the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), and involved with the IPCC. He will be coordinating our new data- and information-sharing collaboration with TMA, hopefully as part of WMO's Global Cryosphere Watch.

As previous entries have mentioned, the past year has been drier than normal at the summit. Decreased albedo has resulted in considerable ablation of both vertical and horizontal surfaces. Indeed, ice loss at the surface caused an unprecedented number of ablation stakes to melt out, and the tipping of several instrument towers. With essential support from our Summit Expeditions (SENE) crew (photos here and here), the towers were reset after 4 nights camped at the summit (see Fig. 2 & 3) and everyone descended safely.

The Furtwängler Glacier provides one illustration of the speed with which glaciers are shrinking on the mountain (Fig. 6). Since February 2000, when Henry Brecher determined the glacier area from aerial photographs, more than 80 percent of this glacier has disappeared. A brief historical perspective on this glacier is available here. The linear rate of area decrease suggests that there will be nothing left of the Furtwängler by 2025.

Many thanks to longtime collaborator Thomas Mölg for helping to support this fieldwork!

Figure 1.  Spencer Hardy and Dr. Ladislaus Chang'a at Barafu Camp (4,670 m), our fifth night of the ascent.

Figure 2.  Looking west over the Northern Icefield. Visible instrumentation includes (left to right) a timelapse camera, high-accuracy temperature and radiation measurement (Climate Reference Network compatible), and the original AWS. Several ablation stakes are faintly visible in the area around the instruments. See next image for detail.

Figure 3.  Northern Icefield instrumentation site at ~noon, looking toward Uhuru Peak on left skyline (2 km distant). This cloud pattern represents typical diurnal development, with convection to the south and west, and rising up the Western Breach.

Figure 4.  Detail of Northern Icefield surface near the AWS, with small nieves penitentes formed since the 2017 long rain season. About 35 cm of the ablation stake is exposed. Between the penitentes is new snow from the previous evening. Also note the area of dirty ice to the right of the stake; the character of all glacier surfaces on Kilimanjaro is spatially heterogeneous and varies tremendously from year to year.

Figure 5.  Rapidly shrinking, east-end remnants of the Northern Icefield, likely once part of an ice body shown in image #95, here.

Figure 6.  The view north from near Uhuru Peak. Northern Icefield in the background, still 40+ meters thick, and the Furtwängler Glacier (foreground); Reusch Crater sloping up to the right. The Furtwängler ice area is 32 percent less than it was just two years ago (Sep. 2015). See image #115 here for the same view in 2013.

Figure 7.  The remaining ice of the former Eastern Icefield, ~1.5 km distant to the northeast.

Figure 8.  Upper Deckens Glacier near Uhuru Peak, one remnant of the former Southern Icefield. Compare with image #33 here from 2009, when the Decken and Kersten Glaciers were still connected. The upper sections of these dirty south-side glaciers provide dramatic evidence for the processes of both sublimation and melt.

Figure 9.  The upper Rebmann Glacier, not far from Stella Point. The recent break-up here has been rapid, associated (in part) with marginal lake formation and drainage; note several areas of buried ice. On the right-hand side of the image, note how the ice stratigraphy more-or-less parallels the slope, yet the ablation surface is nearly horizontal. Selecting sites to obtain ice samples for age dating of these glaciers, or for ice core drilling, is not a trivial issue.

Figure 10.  Looking east from camp, just after sunset. One of the views which keeps us going back!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Sep-Oct Fieldwork

It's time for another visit to the summit glaciers!

Final planning is underway for fieldwork during late September into October, and we anticipate finding dramatic changes since August of 2016. For example, measurements at the AWS indicate that the Northern Icefield surface is more than 60 cm lower than at the time of our 2016 visit - at a location where specific mass balance remained more-or-less neutral for ~ 5 years. With this much ablation (lowering), maintaining vertical towers is difficult, as the middle image below illustrates; by February 2017 the time-lapse camera frame was already leaning, and ablation has continued since then.

Our primary tasks during fieldwork will be to recover AWS data and service the instruments. Almost all towers will probably need to be reset, due to ablation of the glacier surface. We will spend time on both the Northern Icefield, and the south-side Kersten Glacier (see second image).

We will also visit our network of ablation stakes on the glaciers (4th image), updating height change measurements last made in August 2016. Many of these stakes will require resetting, which we do by drilling new holes into the glacier surface.

Finally, we will make observations and measurements at several sites where geothermal heat is causing basal melting, as shown in the lowermost image. Previously-located sites will be visited, and we will search for new ones.

Accompanying us at the summit will be Dr. Chang'a of the Tanzania Meteorological Agency and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). We are looking forward to interesting discussions about Kilimanjaro climate and climate change in general, as we ascend the mountain, attend to the weather stations, and document ongoing glacier retreat.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Update for 1 June

As the long rains season ends, Kibo appears rather snowy from the south. The image above is an early-morning view from the Mweka area yesterday. Thanks once again to Simon Mtuy! On the summit glaciers, telemetry does not indicate any significant snowfall events within the past few weeks.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


The Northern Icefield surface has received badly-needed snow accumulation since mid-February, rising 20-25 cm to approximately mid-October 2016 height. In hindsight, it appears that a minimum height occurred on 18 February, just prior to the photographs posted in the entry below. An early March snowfall event of 15-20 cm was followed by a month of predominantly ablation. A mid-April event then brought new snow, followed by 5-6 days of accumulation up until yesterday and adding 13-14 cm more accumulation. Typically the long rains continue through May, which could partially mitigate impacts of the short rain failure.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The value of a photograph

Measurements from our Northern Icefield AWS are transmitted to us in near-real time via the Argos system, which has proven to be extremely reliable. Telemetry is especially valuable for stations such as Kilimanjaro, for safely conducting fieldwork at 5,700 m requires considerable time simply for acclimatizing. With access to data by telemetry, conditions on the glacier can be monitored remotely, which saves on logistical costs and aids in fieldwork planning.

The figure above illustrates one measurement provided by telemetry: changes in glacier surface height. Decreases in height are due to ablation, the combined impact of melting and sublimation. Height increases are due to snow accumulation. Over time, the plot reveals both seasonal fluctuations of Northern Icefield surface height, and the on-going thinning which has been underway for decades.

For the time interval since June 2015, the bimodal wet seasons are depicted in green (Vuli = 'short rains', typically November & December) and in blue (Masika = 'long rains', typically March-May). Red circles represent the times of fieldwork in September 2015 and August 2016, and a recent visit described below. On the figure, note the lack of accumulation during the 2016 short rains, discussed in prior blog entries. Without much snowfall to add mass and brighten the glacier surface, ablation resumed in January 2017 at a rate similar to the dry season; this is not normal!

The lack of 2016 short rain precipitation on Kilimanjaro was at least partially due to a temperature contrast between the eastern and western Indian Ocean - the Indian Ocean Dipole - depicted above. During the NH summer, high ocean temperatures in the east led to more evaporation and cooling of the moister atmosphere. Easterly airflow over the western Indian Ocean resulted in less convection and less moisture delivery over East Africa during the short rains. In addition to less snowfall on the glaciers, the IOD is contributing to drought and famine in East Africa to the north of Tanzania. With over 10 million people facing food insecurity or worse, the consequences are profound (e.g., see here).

Back on the Northern Icefield, an on-site image from the AWS has provided information which measurements cannot. The image above was sent by Thomas Lämmle, who is frequently on Kilimanjaro with his company "EXTREK-africa" (website and Facebook EXTREK.AFRICA). Thomas' photo confirms the extent of ablation over the past couple months following the failed short rains. With great relief, the AWS tower appears to have remained nearly plumb, despite slackening of the guy cables. Also visible in the image are 3 ablation stakes (within blue ellipses) whose heights have been measured upon every prior visit.

Compare Thomas Lämmle's image from last month with a similar perspective ~17 months earlier, in September 2015 (below). From measurements at the AWS and the ablation stakes, we know that there was little net change in surface height between Sep. 2015 and Aug. 2016. The top figure also reveals that there was indeed no net lowering between Oct. 2011 and July 2016 (see y-axis). Not coincidentally, the AWS tower last required resetting in 2011 - the previous IOD negative event which was also associated with severe famine in East Africa, claiming 260,000 lives (link here).

Combining AWS data with photogrammetric ablation stake measurements reveals a glacier surface lowering of 40-45 cm between Sep. 2015 and the end of last month. Thanks to this recent photograph, we know that the AWS remained vertical as March began. Hopefully the long rains will bring new accumulation, which is the critical control on surface ablation at the Northern Icefield.

Thank you, Thomas!

Monday, March 13, 2017

[updated] Remembering Tharsis Magnus Hyera

“I want to be the most enlightened person on Kilimanjaro climate in Tanzania.”

So wrote collaborator and big-hearted, good friend Tharsis Hyera, who passed away on 14 February after battling Prostrate Cancer. In addition to helping the people of Tanzania better understand Kilimanjaro climate, Tharsis touched the lives of all who spent time with him on the mountain, and is fondly remembered by those he met during an extended visit to New England in autumn of 2005.

Tharsis became involved in Kilimanjaro research upon the recommendation of Steven Mlote, Senior Scientific officer with COSTECH (Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology), who informed us that Tharsis had been a meteorology student of Prof. Stefan Hastenrath at the University of Nairobi, helping with analysis of data from Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in 1973.

We invited Tharsis to join Georg Kaser and others for a June 2001 expedition, in his professional role as a Principal Meteorologist at the Tanzania Meteorological Agency. He immediately accepted, despite virtually no mountain experience, arriving in Moshi with a huge smile and a small suitcase containing casual business attire.

During introductions, Tharsis revealed some minor health concerns and admitted that “I did not tell my doctor about my plan to climb Kilimanjaro, as he might discourage me.” Only later did he reveal to us that “my own people had discouraged me from climbing Kilimanjaro” and that one said “he would be preparing a coffin for receiving my dead body.” Nonetheless, his interest and determination appeared irrepressible, so we outfitted our new 56-year-old collaborator with all the required equipment and embarked on 10 days of fieldwork.
Tharsis’ foray onto the mountain was a great success, as documented in this video clip made by William Brangham and John Savage from NY Times Television. Despite considerable discomfort, he persevered to the top and spent 3 nights sleeping in the crater. In camp each night, he listened keenly to every discussion and contributed his knowledge about the regional climate of East Africa. Upon returning home, Tharsis related that “my wife and entire family were extremely overjoyed to see me walking into our home, looking a bit like a ghost due to the greyish overgrowth on my face, but alive and much healthier than when I left them.” “With me as the hero on center stage, we celebrated all night long.”

Two months after his trip, Tharsis wrote that “I am still having the euphoria of having managed to reach the Kilimanjaro summit. “I cherish the lesson that I learned from you and from the mountain—ad impossibile nemo tenetur—one only needs to shift one's paradigm and to have the perseverance to achieve one's goal.”

In subsequent years, Tharsis contributed toward a 2004 paper on Kilimanjaro glaciers and climate, spent another 4 nights at the summit (photos below), inspired and facilitated the participation of Tanzanian meteorologists Emmanuel Mpeta and Juliana Adosi (figs 5 & 6), and assisted with acquisition of our research permits. On a visit to the United States, Tharsis spent time working with Reanalysis data and jointly presenting lectures – in addition to picking apples, making cider, and singing and dancing at an Elementary school presentation (fig. 8).

As friends and collaborators of Tharsis, we cherish our memories of his enthusiasm, curiosity, and gratitude. May he rest in peace.

[UPDATE 6 APRIL:  Many thanks to daughters Xaveria and Sola for getting in contact and sharing thoughts about our friend Tharsis!]

Fig. 2 - Tharsis on the Northern Icefield, approaching the AWS (note Mt. Meru in background)

Fig. 3 - Tharsis (right) on top of Lava Tower, Oct. 2004, with Fred Contrada & Doug Hardy (PC: Bill Duane)

Fig. 4 - Tharsis on Uhuru Peak, June 2001

Fig. 5 - Tharsis (right) with Emmanuel Mpeta (left) and Guide Erick Masawe at Machame Camp, Oct. 2004

Fig. 6 - Breakfast at Keys Hotel in Moshi, Jan. 2005 (left to right: Doug Hardy, Tharsis Hyera, Georg Kaser, Nicolas Cullen, Juliana Adosi, and Thomas Mölg)

Fig. 7 - Tharsis (left) with Paschal Nguye (former Chief Warden) at MbaheFarmhouse (SENE), Sep. 2009

Fig. 8 - Tharsis at Marion Cross School, Norwich Vermont (USA), Nov. 2005

Fig. 9 - Tharsis and family in Dar es Salaam, c. 2002

Fig. 10 - Tharsis near the summit, with Kersten Glacier, June 2001

Fig. 11 - Our most-recent visit with Tharsis, Sep. 2012 in Mbahe. Always a great listener!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Big book for a big mountain

Whoa... this is a big book, opening to a width of 1.25 meters. Ian van Coller has assembled a stunning collection of photos taken during our 2016 fieldwork, depicting several of the summit glaciers and many of the Tanzanians on our team.

Although no substitute for the large prints, the page-through below provides a glimpse of this monumental undertaking (Kilimanjaro: The Last Glacier). Another page-through and a selection of Kilimanjaro images are posted on Instagram.

Recent summit photos

To provide a context on limited snowfall during the short rains (Nov/Dec), a previous post solicited recent images from the summit. Thanks for the submissions!

Images #1 and #3 here were taken on 2 February and sent in by Pik-Ki Fung. The above view is looking north from Uhuru Peak (summit) across the Furtwängler Glacier and the crater to the Northern Icefield. Despite a moderate snowfall event of ~5 cm on 30 and 31 January, most of that new snow had sublimated and melted prior to when Pik-Ki reached the summit. Rapid ablation of thin snowcover within the crater is typical, as solar radiation is transmitted through to the dark ash. Note that fresh snow remains on glacier surfaces.

The Furtwängler Glacier remnant circled in red above is also visible in the image below, sent in by Kshaunish Jaini of AlienAdv.com. (Kshaunish provides considerable interesting information about climbing Kilimanjaro on this webpage.) The image below from near "Crater Camp" appears to have been taken in the morning, on either 21 or 22 February, and reveals a thin snowcover within the crater. Telemetry from the NIF weather station shows no snowfall between the final days of January and the days just prior to when the image below was taken. Although a minor event, several centimeters of snow accumulated between the 18th and 20th, which is likely what is visible in this image. Even a thin snowcover reflects most of the incoming solar radiation. Thanks Kshaunish!

The image below is looking south, the opposite direction as image #1, and was taken the same day (2 February). Fresh snow is only visible in isolated patches on the ash, yet remains on the glacier and meltwater lake in the foreground. This is the upper Kersten Glacier, seen here a year earlier.
Hopefully the long rains (March-May) will bring fresh snowfall to Kilimanjaro, brightening glacier surfaces and thus reducing radiation receipt. Indeed, both human and natural systems in East Africa are in need of rain, after failure of the 2016 short rains.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Please share recent glacier photos!

Horizontal surfaces on Kilimanjaro glaciers are ablating rapidly at the moment (i.e., melting and sublimating), largely because the 2016 short rains "failed". Typically, a short wet season occurs during November and December, when snowfall at the summit dramatically raises albedo and the associated decrease in net radiation receipt decreases the energy available to drive ablation. During the 2016 short rains, a series of minor snowfall events were sufficient to end a long dry season which began in May, yet once this new snow ablated, the dark, decades- to centuries-old ice surface was exposed again. Ablation began accelerating, and since the New Year, flat areas of the Northern Ice Field have lost ~15 cm of snow and ice.

Snowfall during January and February is usually limited, and quite variable from year to year. Therefore, a high rate of ablation is likely to continue until the long rains begin, typically in March. One wildcard at this time of year due is some tropical cyclone paths in the south-west Indian Ocean, which can result in heavy snowfall on the mountain. This year, however, there has been little cyclone activity in the SWIO region - and indeed, the period 13 December to 31 January is the first on record (since 1960) without a hurricane (cyclone) somewhere on Earth, according to a @philklotzbach tweet.

Anyone visiting Kilimanjaro during February is encouraged to submit photos of the summit area. Any glacier photos would be helpful, especially looking to the south just below Uhuru Peak or across the crater to the Northern Icefield. One weather station is visible near the summit (upper slopes of Kersten Glacier) and another on the Northern Icefield should be barely visible on images taken with a telephoto lens and/or high resolution.

Thank you!