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June 12, 2007

An Inconvenient Study

A study published in American Scientist makes an excellent case for the conclusion that the disappearance of glaciers from Mount Kilimanjaro is NOT due to global warming.  Whoops.  According to authors Philip W. Mote and Georg Kaser:  “The disappearing ice cap of the ‘shining mountain,’ which gets a starring role in the movie [An Inconvenient Truth], is not an appropriate poster child for global climate change.”

This doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening; the authors of the article are quite confident that things have been getting warmer lately and even that the retreat of many glaciers IS linked to that warming – but not this glacier.  In fact, the snows have been disappearing from Kilimanjaro at least since Europeans first explored it in the late 1880s.  The ice loss may even have slowed some as warming accelerated in the last few decades and there probably hasn’t been much temperature change at those altitudes anyway.

Their explanation for what might be causing the snows to disappear from Kilimanjaro is too detailed for me to summarize intelligently.  Way over-simplified: the ambient temperatures up there don’t get above freezing even during the day so most ice loss results from sublimation (the direct evaporation of ice to water vapor without becoming a liquid in the process).  Most of the energy for sublimation comes directly from solar radiation.  It’s quite possible that there’s been more sun and less snow in Kilimanjaro’s vicinity in the last two hundred years than at a time before when the ice cap grew.

Mote and Kaser are doing what scientists are supposed to do: questioning everything, even icons.  They draw no global conclusions from this study nor does it warrant any EXCEPT THAT climate is very complicated and it’s easy to get it wrong. 

We know that the warming trend that’s been going on since the last ice age 12,000 years ago has recently accelerated and we know that the results of further acceleration could be catastrophic.  There’s a lot of evidence – but not proof – that anthropogenic causes (that’s us being bad guys and releasing fossilized carbon as CO2) are a partial cause of the acceleration.  What’s going on is worth thinking about a lot and even acting on in some ways – but we owe it to ourselves to keep questioning.  That’s what science is about.

BTW, Mote and Kasar conclude:  “Ironically, substantial global warming accompanied by an increase in precipitation might be one way to save Kilimanjaro's ice.”

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