The loss of the ice sheets would be another sign of the catastrophic effect of climate change on the continent. Floods are worse, droughts last longer and millions of people have been displaced.
The last three mountain glaciers in Africa are receding at such a rapid pace that they could disappear within two decades, a symbol of the broader devastation being wrought by climate change on the continent, according to a new U.N. report.
While African nations contribute less than 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the report by the World Meteorological Organization and other agencies underscored the outsize impact that changes in the climate are having on the continent’s 1.3 billion people as floods grow worse, droughts last longer and temperatures continue to rise.
“The rapid shrinking of the last remaining glaciers in eastern Africa, which are expected to melt entirely in the near future, signals the threat of imminent and irreversible change to the Earth system,” the World Meteorological Organization’s secretary general, Petteri Taalas, said in a foreword to the report.
The climate in Africa in 2020 was characterized by “continued warming temperatures, accelerating sea-level rise, extreme weather and climate events, such as floods, landslides and droughts, and associated devastating impacts,” he added in the report presented in advance of the U.N. climate conference in Scotland starting on Oct. 31.
The loss of the glaciers — icy holdouts high above the steamy tropics that have long been objects of wonder and fascination — is a physical manifestation of the change in Earth’s climate. Found on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the Rwenzori Mountains bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the glaciers have been in retreat for years.
The report paints a chilling picture of both the impacts to date and the consequences to come if urgent action is not taken. By 2030, up to 118 million people living on less than $1.90 a day “will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat in Africa if adequate response measures are not put in place,” it said.
It warned that the daily struggle of families to find food would grow more difficult as the effects of protracted conflicts, political instability, climate variability, pest outbreaks and economic crises — exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic — were to converge.
As David Beasley, head of the U.N. World Food Program, said recently: “This is an area of the world that has contributed nothing to climate change, but now, they’re the ones paying the highest price.”
In the East African island nation of Madagascar, for example, the United Nations has already warned that the world is witnessing its first “climate famine.” Thousands are currently experiencing catastrophic food shortages and more than half a million people are one step away from starvation, according to the global organization. About 800,000 more are at risk of joining them.
Around the world, climate-related disasters now force more than twice as many people from their homes as war and armed conflict do. In the first six months of 2020, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a nongovernmental data service, recorded 14.6 million new displacements across 127 countries and territories. Conflict and violence accounted for approximately 4.8 million, with disasters causing 9.8 million.
East Africa, according to the report, accounted for some 12 percent of those displacements — with conflict forcing some 500,000 people from their homes and climate disasters affecting another 1.2 million.
The melting of the African glaciers has echoed similar trends on ice-capped peaks in places as distant as Peru and Tibet, and it provides one of the clearest signs that a global warming trend in the last 50 years has exceeded typical climate shift.
As the ice has melted, temperatures have continued to rise.
“The 30-year warming trend for 1991-2020 was higher than for the 1961-1990 period in all African subregions and significantly higher than the trend for 1931-1960,” according to the report. “If this continues, it will lead to total deglaciation by the 2040s,” it warned.
The glacier on Mount Kenya — where snow once blanketed the peak, some 17,000 feet above sea level — is expected to be gone a decade sooner, which would make it, the report said, “one of the first entire mountain ranges to lose glaciers due to human-induced climate change.”