East African glacier retreat and tourism

Matt Caldwell of the adventure travel company Adventure Alternative kindly sent me some recent photos of the Lewis glacier, which continues to split in two. Here it is on the 8th August 2014:

2014_08_09_Lewis GlacierI asked him what he thought the impact of receding glaciers on the east African mountains would have on tourism, and here are his words:

There is no doubt that the presence of permanent glaciers on the summits of Mount Kenya has been a decisive factor in its allure and appeal since man first gazed up at it. From the first Masaai, Kikuyu, Ameru and Kamba who’s indigenous names all make reference to the white, glittering, speckled nature of its summits, to London’s Royal Geographical Society scoffing at Krapf’s claim to have seen glaciers on the equator, it is surely these icefields that have set it apart from the many other interesting peaks and formations along the rift valley.
While most of its visitors will not set foot on the actual glaciers themselves, the idea of climbing up alongside and above these great swathes of ice whilst only 15km from the equator is a powerful image and undoubtedly one that helps ‘sell’ the mountain as something more special and exotic. As the glaciers continue to recede and shrink back into the rocky niches of the mountain, they start to look more and more like a remnant of a past age than a proud force of nature. Already, the Gregory, Northey, Cesar, Joseph and Darwin glaciers are hard [… to see …] without a concerted effort and the evocative Diamond Glacier and couloir looks like little more than some old snow shrinking into the South Face.
The long term appeal of the mountain without glaciers is uncertain. For people already travelling to Kenya, there is no doubt that the mountain will remain a curiosity and perhaps still worthy of a few day’s trekking to see its peak. After a fresh sprinkling of snow it will still be a sight worthy of remark and a few photographs from the equatorial plains below. Whether or not it would still be sufficiently alluring to have induced Felice Benuzzi to escape from POW Camp 354 to spend two weeks battling up its slopes is questionable.
On a practical level, the reliability of the water supply to the upper huts and tarn-side campsites is likely to suffer and the disappearance of these refuges may further accelerate the decline in visits by the less determined trekker. This in its turn could threaten the viability of the huts lower down and perhaps the manning of National Park gates and the permanent presence of the KWS rangers’ hut in the Teleki Valley. A decline in this infrastructure would be hard to reverse if it were to take hold.
All things considered, the eventual loss of Mt Kenya’s glaciers sometime in the next century can only really seem to have a negative impact on its appeal to the visitor. The effects on the communities of local porters, guides, taxis and hotels will certainly be felt. The employment brought by tourism does contribute one of the only major additions to the cash economy of some villages where largely subsistence farming is still a way of life. Even today, the income from tourism is unpredictable season to season, so no doubt these resilient communities and their economy will adapt and life will move on, […but…] the effects of this adaptation will of course be greatly affected by the rate at which the change happens.

He also added:

It will of course be a sad day when Mount Kenya is no longer able to court its overseas admirers with promises of alpine glaciers amid equatorial savannah and carrying crampons in your safari truck. What is harder to quantify is what effect may take place in the collective cultural identity of the mountain and what losing its glaciers may represent to Kenya at large. The mountain gave its name to the nation, it’s outline appears on the national emblem, its first president entitled his published anthropological study with it and traditionally the Kikuyu people saw it as the realm of their god Ngai. To Kenyans it will never be ‘just another mountain’ and losing one of its defining and remarkable features will surely be a loss felt more keenly, subtly and deeply by them as a result.

 Adventure Alternative organise excursions to many mountain regions and in Kenya, Nepal and Borneo also work with the NGO The Moving Mountains Trust.



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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