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The Snows of Kilimanjaro

By Mitchell H. Lowe, A.I.A., NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

On April 22, 1970, my elementary school gathered outside on a warm, sunny day in suburban Washington, D.C. to commemorate the first Earth Day.  In 1970, the call to action was to implore action on reducing air pollution, cleaning our streams and rivers, and keeping our land green and trash free.  Even at that young age, the message of that day had a lasting effect on me. 

Later, when I was in Mr. Plank’s 7th grade World Social Studies class, I found that one of the most interesting segments was on Africa.  For the final assignment, my project was to build a relief map of the entire continent.  The most distinctive part of the map was Mount Kilimanjaro, jutting up like a thumb from the East African high plains.  When I presented the map to the class, I was reminded by our teacher that the mountain had snow on the top.  “How could that be possible?” I thought, “It is right on the Equator, it must be way too hot for snow.” 

As I progressed further in my schooling, I began to read the works of Hemingway, including his classic short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.  In the book, as his main character descends into lunacy recounting his imaginary chase of the legendary leopard while slowly dying from infection, Hemingway still manages to describe the image of the snow at the top of the mountain.  As great of a storyteller as he was, I figured the snow wasn’t something he could just make up.

And so, earlier this year, when my family began to plan our trip to Kenya, I found that I was particularly looking forward to seeing these snows for myself.  After spending six days in Nairobi, Masaai Mara, and Lake Nkuru, the day finally came!  Driving from Nairobi, we made the turn toward the south.  Slowly, an immense shape began to rise out the plains ahead of us.  It is something not to be missed.  Kilimanjaro rises higher from its surroundings than any other mountain in the world, almost 15,000 feet from the plains to the summit.  As we neared the mountain we could finally see the summit with clarity.  But, where was the snow?

There was a tiny patch of snow at the summit, but where was the rest of it?  Our guide informed us that when he first started leading tours there had been significantly more snow at the summit but the snow and glacier had significantly receded in recent years.  Based on reports and observations that I was able to find, the amount of snow at the top of the mountain has receded by approximately 85% since 1910, and 25% of that snow was lost between the years of 2000 and 2007.  Current estimates state there will be a complete loss of snow sometime between the mid-2020’s and the mid-2030’s.   LE IMG_0144

The loss of snow on the summit has significantly affected the wildlife and geography of the Amboseli plains of Kenya on the north side of the mountain.  Lake Amboseli is fed by the runoff and melting snows at the top of the mountain.  The lake used to be an oasis that sustained vegetation and, by extension, the local wildlife.  However, most of Amboseli is now a dried up lake bed.  As the flow of water ebbed, the elephants no longer had small bushes to eat and instead began to knock down the trees for food.  Once they knocked down the trees, the giraffes which used to roam freely on the plains, had nothing to eat.  As a result, they went elsewhere and there are now no giraffes in the parkland.  While elephants and wildebeest still heavily populate the area, if the land is no longer able to provide sufficient food, they too will need to migrate to more amenable quarters.  The effect of change in one part of an ecosystem has a direct effect on other parts of the surrounding ecosystem.  Eventually, these continued changes to the ecosystem will also affect man’s ability to live in this region.

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There are many theories as to why the snow on Mount Kilimanjaro has receded but the incidence of global climate change seems to be the most consistent commonality.  While I am not going to analyze and dispute the merits of each of these theories, the overall understanding is that man’s effect on the environment is profound and, just as I witnessed on that first Earth Day back in 1970, should prompt a renewed call to action to create a cleaner, more sustainable, and more energy efficient world in which to live.  As architects and engineers, reducing the effects of emissions from our buildings and the by-products of their occupancy is essential.