Is Deforestation Driving Mt. Kenya’s Glacier Recession?

High above the African continent, Mount Kenya’s glaciers are rapidly receding. A new study published in the American Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering is one of the few to analyze the retreat of African glaciers, finding that forest cover has the highest correlation with Mt. Kenya’s glacier coverage. The study’s climate prediction models found that the current trend in glacier thinning will continue, although at a slower rate, until the glaciers completely disappear by 2100. In addition, the research found forest cover to be responsible for 75 percent of changes in glacier coverage during the study period, from 1984 to 2017. But can local deforestation truly be so impactful?

2017 Glacier Coverage on Mt. Kenya (Source: American Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering).

About 7 percent of Kenya is currently forested, and the average trees per person measurement is well below the global average. The country suffered from massive deforestation during the last century due to logging, charcoal burning, and agricultural expansion. In this same period, Mt. Kenya has lost roughly 92 percent of its ice cap, according to the study. Out of its once expansive 18 glaciers that reached thousands of feet beneath the 17,057-foot peak, only eight remain, with all of the remaining glaciers suffering substantial losses in both thickness and area, a change the authors attribute to the lack of forest cover.

However, earlier research conducted on other glaciers in Africa conflicts with these findings. At Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak lying 324 kilometers south of Mt. Kenya, glacier recession has been found to be more dependent on regional precipitation patterns than local deforestation ones, according to studies from both 2008 and 2004. A study in ScienceDirect also found that glacier recession near Mt. Kilimanjaro was not affected by local deforestation. And “long-term ice retreat at the summit of Kilimanjaro is most likely to be influenced by changes in local land-use as well as more regional free-air changes,” argues further research in Global and Planetary Change.

Without additional investigation focused on Mt. Kenya, it remains difficult for scientists to draw firm conclusions about the causes of glacier recession.

Batian Peak on Mt. Kenya (Source: Stefan Leitner/Flickr).

The government of Kenya has attempted to reverse deforestation impacts with efforts to prevent logging throughout the early 2000s, but the most recent logging ban has recently been relaxed. This places Mt. Kenya at risk of further glacial retreat, which raises concerns about water sources for the many rivers fed by Mt. Kenya’s glaciers.

“As climate variability increases, the Mount Kenya watershed becomes more important,” Kathleen Galvin, an anthropology professor and director of the Africa Center at Colorado State University told GlacierHub. “If the glaciers retreat at the same time as seasonal climate variability occurs, people, livestock, and wildlife will become more vulnerable,” she warns.

Mt. Kenya’s glaciers serve as the headwaters of the Ewaso Nyiro river watershed which provides water to the high potential agricultural communities around the mountain. The river is also important to the northern Kenyan pastoralists, including the Samburu, Somali, and Borana, according to Galvin. The study finds that the current drying out trend of rivers that have catchments in the Mt. Kenya forests will continue, leading to an increased water shortage and vulnerability for the area.

Study area on Mt. Kenya (Source: American Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering).

The researchers used Landsat and climate data from the last 33 years to find correlations between glacier coverage and forest cover, temperature, precipitation, solar insolation, and relative humidity. Forest coverage was by far the leading driver found by the authors for the glacier retreat on Mt. Kenya, with temperature also responsible for 16 percent of the changes in glacier coverage. In addition, models were used to predict future conditions until 2045.

According to Abe Goldman of the Department of Geography and Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, it would be a considerable achievement if forest cover within Mt. Kenya National Park boundaries could even be maintained at present levels in the coming years.

“Given current demographic and land use trends and conditions, there is little probability of actual forest increase (though there might be slightly more trees on farms),” he told GlacierHub.

Goldman’s concerns ran deeper, however, as he found some of the study’s assertions to be “questionable.”

“There is no causal mechanism noted that would generate increased glacial mass if ‘forest cover’ were increased,” he said. “Nor is it clear which forest cover at which location(s) might lead to glacial expansion.”

He also notes that the populations and intensive land use of Kenya and the surrounding countries, and especially close to Mt. Kenya National Park, have drastically increased, with 60 percent of the population being agricultural and reliant on biomass for energy. “The major role of population growth surrounding Mt. Kenya, especially adjacent to park boundaries, is neglected in the article,” said Goldman.

The authors of the study could not be reached for comment by the time of publication of this article. However, it is clear that further research is needed to study Mt. Kenya’s glaciers and other glaciers throughout the African continent in order to grasp the rapid changes that have heavy ties to both surrounding ecosystems and local communities.