UNEP report on African snow and ice

The journal Environmental Development publishes United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports as well as peer reviewed articles. Recently, a UNEP report entitled ‘Africa without ice and snow’ was published in this journal. Unfortunately, this article did not accurately reflect the current scientific findings, and so my colleague Thomas Mölg led an effort to respond to this report by presenting a succinct summary of the latest understanding of east African glaciers, and to clear up some misleading information presented in this UNEP report.

The response article is available online as a corrected proof at present: East African glacier loss and climate change: Corrections to the UNEP article “Africa without ice and snow”

This comment paper summarises the scientific findings regarding (i) the role of east african glaciers in the regional water resource, (ii) changes in these glacier bodies over recent glaciers and (iii) climate drivers of glacier change, highlighting that:

  • because of their small size these glaciers are not a significant component to regional hydrology
  • in contrast, maintenance of the mountain rainforest belt is of great importance in sustaining regional water resources
  • recent areal retreat rates of the east African glaciers are not exceptional in the historical record (see below, taken from the publication)
  • great care must be taken in distinguishing snow covered areas from glacierized areas, and change in them
  • glacier ice on the summit of Kilimanjaro is far above the regional freezing level and thus is insensitive to changes in temperature, in contrast to the glacier ice on Mount Kenya and Rwenzori, which is near the regional freezing level
  • ice loss on Kilimanjaro is related to reduced solid precipitation at the summit since the late 19th century
  • sublimation is the dominant ablation process on Kilimanjaro, but melting dominates on Mount Kenya and  Rwenzori


Changes in glacier surface area over time on Mount Kenya (Lewis Glacier), Rwenzori and Kilimanjaro. The y-axis on the right side shows the % area relative to the first available extent in the record, and italic numbers show the mean rates of areal shrinkage (in thousands of square metres per year) between the indicated and previous point in time. Errors are typically <5% and thus do not impact the trends exhibited. Data sources are given in the original article.

The findings of a decade of research on glaciers on Kilimanjaro by the Universities of Innsbruck, Massachusetts and Otago are presented succinctly in this Kilimanjaro factsheet.


About lindsey

Environmental scientist. I am glaciologist specialising in glacier-climate interactions to better understand the climate system. The point of this is to understand how glaciated envionments might change in the future - how the glaciers will respond and what the impact on associated water resources and hazard potential will be.
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