A deadly message in Kilimanjaro’s snows

In my work, I watch for “field events” — occurrences whose facts are overshadowed by their implication as indicators of something much larger. Such an event occured high on Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this month, when a rockslide tragically killed three American hikers camped near Arrow glacier, and injured two others.

This tragedy is important because the deaths may be linked to the retreat of Kilimanjaro’s icefields, which in turn has been linked by some to global climate change. In 2001, Dr. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University presented a paper at that year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco noting that over 80 percent of Kilmanjaro’s icefield had disappeared since it was first mapped in the early 20th century, and that at least a third of the ice had disappeared since the late ‘80s.

Thompson’s implication that the ice retreat on Kilimanjaro and other low latitude mountains was caused by global climate change triggered a firestorm of protest from global warming skeptics. But Thompson was joined by many scientific supporters and all the while evidence of global climate change has only grown. Linking global warming to specific events is problematic at best, but the hiker’s tragedy is nonetheless an interesting if tentative indicator.

We are accustomed — desensitized– to news of large scale disasters in the developing world, from flood dead in Bangladesh to village-wrecking mudslides in Peru. An ever growing portion of these disasters are being tentatively linked to global climate change. Against this backdrop of misery, it is unlikely that the death of three Tanzanians on Kilimanjaro would have ever been reported outside of Tanzania, much less in US newspapers. But amidst the daily rounds of sorrow in the developing world, the deaths of three Americans on adventure travel on Africa’s tallest mountain thus grabs our attention for it’s novelty and the prospect that while we can’t imagine living in a Bangladeshi slum or a Peruvian mountain village, we can easily imagine ourselves in the shoes of trekkers summiting Kilimanjaro.

In a few years, we may remember the three dead for quite a different reason. Once the debate over the cause of Kilimanjaro’s ice retreat is concluded, we may just discover that these three Americans were the first developed world victims of global warming. Of course they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, but what happened to them while on vacation could well be an advance indicator of what awaits others at home in the future.

Certainly the biggest early losers from global warming will be populations in the developing world, particularly inhabitants of island nations and low-lying coastal areas. But the impacts will of course be at work all over the planet, and citizens of the developed world who feel safe and sound and consider the tragedies of the developing world to be a world away may discover, like the hikers on Kilimanjaro that where they chose to camp was not the haven they assumed.