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On Thin Ice

Mount Kilimanjaro (kill uh man JAH roh) in Tanzania (tan zuh NEE uh) is known for its breathtaking scenery. At the base of the African mountain lies a lush jungle where elephants and antelopes roam.

Higher up, the mountain is cold, snowy, and desolate. Very few animals or plants live near the top. Still, people from all over the world travel to Tanzania to climb to the snowcapped peak of Kilimanjaro, which, at 19,340 feet (5,895 meters), is the tallest mountain in Africa.

Kilimanjaro is a majestic sight. In the words of writer Ernest Hemingway, it is “great, high, and unbelievably white.” However, Kilimanjaro is changing. Some scientists say that in 15 years the snows of Kilimanjaro will be gone. Glaciers on top of the mountain are quickly melting. The glaciers, which measured 4.8 square miles in 1912, have now shrunk to less than one square mile.

“I expected to be walking through snowfields,” said a British tourist who recently climbed Kilimanjaro. “But there was no snow at all.”

The glaciers on Kilimanjaro aren't the only ones that are melting. From Antarctica to Glacier National Park in Montana, slow-moving masses of snow and ice are shrinking at an alarming speed. Most of Earth's 160,000 glaciers have been thawing naturally for centuries. Yet scientists say that the melting has increased since the 1990s, the hottest decade in a thousand years.

Scientists believe glacial melting is one sign that Earth has become warmer over the past century. They fear that the melting glaciers will threaten human, animal, and plant life because ocean levels will rise by as much as 12 to 24 inches within the next century.

Antarctica on the Edge

The problem is most severe in Western Antarctica, where scientists 30 years ago first noticed that glaciers were beginning to get smaller and even disappear. Scientists say Antarctica's glaciers have lost 36 cubic miles of ice in the past decade. That is enough water to raise the world's sea levels by about one-sixtieth of an inch.

That's just in Antarctica! Consider this: If ocean levels rise an additional foot, the rising water would cause widespread flooding along the world's coastlines, submerging coastal cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco.

“These glaciers are thinning rapidly,” said scientist Eric Rignot from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Glaciers are also melting quickly in South America. In Peru, a glacier named Qori Kalis (Koh ree Kah lees) loses as much ice in one week as it used to lose in a year. “You can literally sit there and watch it retreat,” said Lonnie Thompson, a glacier expert from Ohio State University.

In South Asia, melting water from glaciers in the Himalayas is threatening tens of thousands of people who live and work in the valleys below.

North to Alaska

In the United States, scientists say that 67 Alaskan glaciers are melting at an average of 6 feet a year, a staggering rate. Farther south in Montana, Glacier National Park is losing its glaciers. In 1850, there were 150 glaciers that covered 61 square miles in the park. Today, fewer than 30 glaciers cover 16.5 square miles. Researchers expect that the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges in the West will lose all of their glaciers as well.

Hot Time

Can anything be done to stop the big melt? Some people say global warming is natural and is part of a normal process.

Other people say that humans contribute to Earth's rising temperatures by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap the sun's heat.

Some scientists say humans must work to stop the damaging effects of global warming. Only then can the glaciers be saved.