Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain and Kenya’s tallest, is one of the country’s water towers and a source of numerous rivers and streams that feed into the mighty Tana River — Kenya’s longest and the location of one of the country’s largest water reservoirs, the Masinga Dam — and the Ewaso Nyiro, which is the life line of the arid north.
Millions of people both upstream and downstream depend on the mountain for water.
The mountain’s source of water has over the centuries been the several glaciers that begin at 15,000 feet above sea level, despite being right on the Equator.
The glaciers are fast disappearing and with an already announced drought alert in the region, their melting is expected to accelerate. Rivers and streams around the mountain have already been reported to have dried up.
In 1893, the famous British geologist Dr John W Gregory led the first scientific expedition up Mt Kenya but could not make it past the ice glaciers to reach the summit.
The mountain top was decked in ice and snow. He spent several hours at what later came to be known as the Lewis Glacier at 15,000 feet before descending.
Sir Halford Mackinder and two companions were the first to conquer the summit — Batian at 17,340 feet — reaching it at noon on September 13, 1899. They had to cross a gigantic carpet of ice, later named the Lewis Glacier, and the mountain’s largest.
Recent stories from expeditions up the mountain tell a different tale.
Gazing up at the Batian summit on a clear morning a few days into 2017, Benson Maina, a naturalist at the Serena Mountain Lodge points to Nelion, the second highest peak. To summit it, one has to cross the Lewis Glacier. The Gregory Glacier that was next to it no longer exists.
“The glaciers are rapidly disappearing,” says Maina who has scaled the mountain dozens of times since 2010. It is estimated that in the next 30 years, all the glaciers on Mt Kenya will have disappeared — largely because of climate change.
“Until a few years ago, it was impossible to ascent to the lobelia alpine zone at 11,500 feet without proper climbing shoes because it was so wet and boggy. Now l can walk up in my safari shoes.”
“In the past 20 years, we have seen less rainfall and hence the rivers drying up,” continues Maina as we stroll through the forest on the lower slopes. “2016 was the first Christmas we have had without any rain.”
But that’s not the only change. The first glacier to disappear was the Krapf Glacier in 1926 (Dr Ludwig Krapt recorded it in 1849). Out of the 16 known glaciers that existed a century ago, only six or seven remain today, and are melting fast.
The Lewis Glacier has been surveyed intensively since 1934 together with other major tropical glaciers in the world. In a 1995 survey, it was reported “climatic forcing of the glacier recession has accentuated in recent years.”
“In the 1980s, the area of glaciers on the mountain was measured, and recorded as about 0.7 square kilometres — far smaller than the first observations made in the 1890s. According to the Mountain Club of Kenya there is less new snow accumulating in winter every year than melting in summer, leaving the mountain with no formation of new ice.