From the Serengeti, the setting for Hemingway's story, Kilimanjaro looms alone and immense in the eastern sky. During much of the year the sun rises from directly behind it. Kilimanjaro is the world's largest and tallest free-standing mountain, and in that publication year of 1927 it would still have been crowned with most of its massive ice fields. To the dying narrator, imagining himself in the small plane soaring into the glittering place he had viewed only from a distance, it truly would have seemed "as wide as all the world." What better metaphor for the great maw of eternity?

Yet by 1927 the ice fields had already begun to shrink. First measured in 1912, they were early in a slow decline (approximately 1% per year) most likely brought on by the leveling of the region's forests for agriculture. Fewer trees would have meant less evaporation from foliage, resulting in less cloud cover to shield the ice from solar rays, and less precipitation to replenish it. Less precipitation also means the top layer of ice darkens with dirt and soot, and like any dark surface, absorbs more radiation, speeding up the melting.

More recently the shrinkage has accelerated to about 2½% per year, with climate change receiving much of the blame. Of the extent present in 1912, 85% is gone. Of what remained in 2000, 26% disappeared in only nine years.1 The ice fields are nearly 12,000 years old and have previously withstood a 300-year drought; but today's climate conditions are likely to prove their undoing, together with other tropical glaciers such as those in the Andes and New Guinea.

The ice fields' meltwater has long fed the rivers of the surrounding area, watering the fields of the pastoral Maasai people and providing water for the villages. The ice-crowned volcano is a focal point of foreign tourism, a major industry in revenue-starved Tanzania. It is also the only source of historic climate data for Africa; the ice cores drilled from its thinning ice fields hold all the knowledge there is about past climate dynamics in the region, as well as clues for the future.

The loss of Kilimanjaro's glaciers and ice fields would also be an "aesthetic disaster," according to Stefan Hastenrath, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Hastenrath has climbed the mountain three times, and believes there is "hardly anything more beautiful."2

Estimates of how soon we will see a naked Kilimanjaro range from a few years to a few decades. But however soon it may happen, scientists agree that there is where we are going.

1 Thompson, LG; Brecher, HH; Mosley-Thompson, E; Hardy, DR; & Mark, BG. Glacier loss on Kilimanjaro continues unabated. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2009: 106 (47) pp. 19770-19775.

2 Minarcek, Andrea. Mount Kilimanjaro's glacier is crumbling. National Geographic News, Sept 23 2003.