Glaciers on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

I recently returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for a great cause, and I was reminded why I left engineering to work on climate change. Mount Kilimanjaro, or Kili, is the tallest peak in Africa, and its summit is covered with beautiful glaciers (see the picture to the right). But those glaciers are rapidly disappearing, and scientists estimate Kili’s summit will be ice free by 2022. This trend is a prime example of forced adaptation to climate change and provides a serious warning of things to come unless we work together to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. The action we need has to come from government at all levels, businesses, and individuals as we explain in our Climate Change 101 series.

More than one million people live in the area around Kili, and glacial melting will affect their economic livelihood and limit their access to drinking water. The people of this region are not major emitters of greenhouse gases and have no control over the changes they’re experiencing on their beloved mountain. Depending on their ability to adapt, changes over the next decade could be catastrophic to the people in the region.

Kili’s glaciers and precipitation in the local rainforests provide the water supply for travelers and, more importantly, for local residents. It’s still unclear how much of that drinking water comes from the rainy season versus the glaciers. Regardless, scientists indicate drought conditions in the area in recent years could also be a result of climate change. In fact, my climbing guide indicated the water flow on the mountain decreased noticeably since he first visited Kili in the early 1990s. There were multiple spots along the climb where I could see dry gullies where water once flowed (see the picture below). Visiting the mountain right after the rainy season, I wondered if these dried-out channels would eventually be Kili’s new normal.

Water typically flows here after the rainy season

Climate change’s impact on tourism could have an even greater impact on the people of the area. A major source of government revenue from the Kilimanjaro region is tourism, which I witnessed firsthand during my trip. The climb to the summit of Kili is a strenuous multi-day journey that requires the support of many porters to carry equipment and food and to fetch water. As my guide said, “Many of the local people rely on Kilimanjaro for a job.” If the rivers on the mountain run too low, porters will have to go farther to refill containers and carry them to the mountain’s different camps. If rivers run dry, the government may have to build water pipelines, which will drive up tour costs and may squeeze some visitors out of the market. Any sharp decrease in tourism could devastate the local economy.

Forecasting these impacts on water resources and the economy is a case study in climate change adaptation. The problems Kili will face in the coming decade foreshadow what other regions will face if we don’t act now to mitigate the effects of global climate change. Dr. Lonnie Thompson from Ohio State University, an expert on Mount Kilimanjaro, calls the melting glaciers around the world “the canaries in the coal mine.”

The natural beauty of places like Kili not only provides inspiration to visitors, but also supports the livelihood of the local people. It may be too late to save Kili’s glaciers, but not all is lost in the effort to tackle climate change if we act now. While comprehensive action is the best way to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases, government can take incremental steps that will help a great deal, such as setting new fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. And low-carbon innovation will become even more important in the future for businesses’ bottom line, according to our recent survey. Finally, individuals can take steps every day to help. For instance, the Pew Center’s Make an Impact program aims to help people “save energy, save money, and save the planet.” Initiatives like ours can help educate and inform action, and encourage people to take concrete steps that make a difference. Implementing small changes in your daily life can have a noticeable impact – and after all, you’ll never know what you can do unless you try.