The Island of Doubt

The snow job of Kilimanjaro

It’s almost not worth mentioning, but Mount Kilimanjaro exemplifies the central weakness of the climate change pseudoskeptic’s case. Does it matter how much snow lies at the top of Africa’s tallest peak? No. And for the same reason that it doesn’t matter that this past January was particularly cold in some parts of the world. It all goes back to the difference between climate and weather. So, one more time, here goes.

Climate is like a road trip from San Francisco to Denver. Weather is like one hour of that road trip. Some hour you might be driving up a hill, the next you might be driving down one. No single hour will provide you any information about the overall trend in elevation. But eventually it becomes clear that you are gaining elevation. Denver is a lot higher than San Francisco. End of metaphor and end of argument.

It’s that simple, and yet otherwise intelligent and educated people keep confusing weather with climate. It’s happening again with Kilimanjaro, which has been losing snow for years, except when it isn’t, that is. An usually heavy dump of snow and rain in2007 left the peak white again. Just like old times. And those who would rather not believe the climate is changing are seizing on the “news” as evidence to support their position. Here’s an excerpt from a Jan. 20 post from the Watts Up With That blog, under the now quite tired title of “Yet another inconvenient story ignored by the MSM”:

So when a news story crossed my desk today that said: “Mount Kilimanjaro: On Africa’s roof, still crowned with snow” I had to wonder, will we see this one covered in the main stream media? Or maybe those beacons of truth over at Real Climate will make a note of it?

Don’t hold your breath. But, at least the New York Times travel section covered it.

The first thing to note about the Anthony Watt’s post is that both stories to which he refers are actually the same story. The first link is to an International Herald Tribune travel piece, which is an identical copy of a New York Times story. The IHT and the NYT have this arrangement, see? It’s called syndication. But I digress.

The second point is, as you can see in the excerpt below, Watts didn’t notice that the story described conditions a year ago, a common reality of travel journalism. I doubt the mainstream media would be likely to jump all over year-old observations ;;;;; even if they weren’t completely beside the point.

Third, the Real Climate “beacons” actually did deal with Kilimanjaro ages ago, and I’ll draw on their expertise later. But first, this excerpt from the story in question:

It looked nothing like the photographs of Kibo nearly denuded of ice and snow in the Al Gore documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Nor did it seem to jibe with the film’s narrative: “Within the decade, there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro.”

As it turned out, we had simply been lucky.

This was the last week of January — nearly a year ago — and the middle of the dry season. But several weeks of heavy rain and snow preceded the arrival of our group, 10 mountaineering clients and a professional guide from International Mountain Guides, based near Seattle. That made for a freakishly well-fed snow pack and the classic snowy image portrayed on travel posters, the label of the local Kilimanjaro Premium Lager and the T-shirts hawked in Moshi’s tourist bazaars. But to many climate scientists and glaciologists who have probed and measured, the disappearance of the summit’s ice fields is inevitable and imminent.

So even the travel writer, who actually walked on the tell-tale evidence himself, knew better than to equate the current weather conditions on the mountain with long-term trends in global temperature averages. Not so the Watts blogger, who, curiously enough, is a former television meteorologist.

Funny that.

Now, as it happens, the cause of the recent (as in years-long) trend on the mountain toward less ice and snow is the subject of some controversy. There are those who suspect that local precipitation trends, perhaps caused by nearby deforestation, are to blame. Maybe. Others say the evidence for that particular link is too weak as yet.

The gang at Real Climate, for example, recognizes that “there is indeed some ongoing discussion in the literature as to whether or not the retreat of ice on Kilimanjaro is related to the direct effects (warming atmospheric temperatures) or indirect effects (altered patterns of humidity, cloud cover, and precipitation influencing Kilimanjaro’s ice mass) of climate change, and that argument isn’t yet over. ”

“But,” add Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann, “these arguments would be of more relevance if (a) we were not witnessing the imminent demise of an ice field that we know has existed for at least the past 12,000 yearsand (b) most of the other glaciers weren’t disappearing as well. ” (Emphasis mine.)

There is, in my opinion, enough doubt to warrant not using Kilimanjaro as a poster child for climate change. For that reason, I omit photographs of the mountain when I present Al Gore’s climate crisis slide show. But it’s easy to do that because Gore’s presentation comes with about a dozen other before-and-after photographic examples illustrating Schmidt and Mann’s argument about glacial retreat around the world. (Here‘s a good place for some such photography.) I almost always have to trim the show for time, and I chose to edit out anything that isn’t absolutely rock solid on the science.

The point is, the overwhelming majority of the world’s glaciers are melting faster than they used to. We’ve known this for years. So whether or not Kilimanjaro is bucking that trend or following it makes not one wit of difference. The current conditions, needless to say (but here I am saying it again), are completely irrelevant. Weather and climate, folks. It’s that simple.

So why get my nose out of joint over a single blogger’s confused ideas? Because there are still plenty out there. This particular example is currently used as an example of climate crisis skepticism by the owners of the Climate Debate Daily site, an aggregation of for and against stories and blog posts. I wish the owners of CDD, the same folks who run which shares an editor with the popular Arts and Letters Daily, would stop giving equal treatment to both genuine science and ill-informed polemics. Making matter worse, the Times of London recently included CDD in its list of top 50 eco-blogs, a sad commentary on the Times’ editorial judgment.


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    February 29, 2008

    Climate is like a road trip from San Francisco to Denver. Weather is like one hour of that road trip. Some hour you might be driving up a hill, the next you might be driving down one. No single hour will provide you any information about the overall trend in elevation. But eventually it becomes clear that you are gaining elevation. Denver is a lot higher than San Francisco.


    End of metaphor…

    Well … more a simile, I’d say …

  2. #2 Matt Platte
    February 29, 2008

    Heh. Some blogger on the Internet is wrong. xkcd

  3. #3 James B. Rhoads
    February 29, 2008

    I sure hope I’m not a “pseudoskeptic” though I remain a doubter . . . not in climate change, but in the hysteria. It isn’t that glaciers are not retreating worldwide, but that Mount Kilimanjaro was used as the billboard for it. Regardless, keep up the great work that you do.

  4. #4 Lance
    March 1, 2008

    Mt. Kilimanjaro was used by Al Gore as the poster glacier for AGW in his emotional slide show. The “consensus” opinion is that land use changes, specifically forest clearing, have lead to a decrease in available moisture to form snow. This of course has nothing to do with CO2, man made or otherwise. Temperature readings in the area show a downard trend since 1979.

    That Gavin Schmidt and his fellow climate alarmists continue to posit a tenuous secondary link to man made CO2 just demostrates the lenght some people will go to in order to perpetuate climate hysteria.

    Let it go. That you even continue to bring it up demonstrates the weakness of your position.

  5. #5 Mac
    March 1, 2008

    Unfortunately this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Both proponents of AGW and skeptics frequently mistake weather for climate, inflate evidence favourable to their position, and ignore or misinterpret evidence against it. It’s called human nature. I suggest you read a psychology book such as Stuart Sutherland’s “irrationality”. Pay special attention to the hints at the end of each chapter. They will help you be more aware of your own weaknesses.

    BTW, Mr Watts is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “anonymous”. Get your facts right about such simple details at least.

  6. #6 Frank Lee
    March 2, 2008

    I believe you’ve misunderstood the point here. The skeptics are not confusing weather with climate. They are noting that the alarmists often confuse weather with climate when it serves their purposes, but when the weather doesn’t cooperate — as it no longer is doing on Mt. Kilimanjaro — they conveniently ignore the weather.

    By the way, aren’t you put off by Schmidt and Mann’s nonsensical reasoning that the land-use explanations for the receding glacier on Kilimanjaro aren’t relevant because the glacier has existed for 12,000 years? How does that make the land-use explanation less relevant?

  7. #7 mike worst
    March 2, 2008

    You have got to laugh—panic is setting in now that there is solid evidence of global cooling. The boot is now on the other foot and maybe the term “denier or skeptic” will have to be applied to the other camp. We humans are a bunch of clowns.

  8. #8 Stargazer
    March 2, 2008

    “Climate is like a road trip from San Francisco to Denver. Weather is like one hour of that road trip. Climate is like a road trip from San Francisco to Denver. Weather is like one hour of that road trip. Some hour you might be driving up a hill, the next you might be driving down one. No single hour will provide you any information about the overall trend in elevation. But eventually it becomes clear that you are gaining elevation. Denver is a lot higher than San Francisco. End of metaphor and end of argument.. Denver is a lot higher than San Francisco. End of metaphor and end of argument.”

    See I am an astronomer well used to really big numbers and timescales. The above is not a good example. The writer is trying to say that the trip would take 10’s of hours and you only sample 1 hour pieces… 10’s of hours of the above analogy is also too short…and more importantly it gives a starting point and a finishing point for the trip.

    Given that the world is billions of years old and will last billions more. a much more accurate analogy would be that you are driving on a continent that is, to all intents and purposes, of infinite size. No starting point… and no destination. Therefore. The analogy would be….

    Climate is like a road trip of indefinite/infinite length. Weather is like one hour of that road trip. Some hour you might be driving up a hill, the next you might be driving down one. No single hour will provide you any information about the overall trend in elevation. But eventually it becomes clear that you are gaining elevation. and after awhile you start to descend again due to the valley’s, Mountains, hills and plains. You have no idea what is ‘normal’ because you have no idea of what terrain is in front of you, and little idea of where the car has been, as you were born in the car, and will die in it

  9. #9 Dodo
    March 2, 2008

    Mac: “Both proponents of AGW and skeptics frequently mistake weather for climate, inflate evidence favourable to their position, and ignore or misinterpret evidence against it. It’s called human nature.”

    Exactly, and we’ve seen this so many times before. Serious people could take an oath that, they will agree to have one finger cut off if they use weather data in a climate debate. But the pressure from the media and the public at large to confuse the two is so strong that, in a couple of years all climate (and weather) experts would end up fingerless.

  10. #10 Robert Wahl
    March 2, 2008

    Was it not the AGW advocates that introduced Kilimanjaro as a data point? So why the hissyfit about reports about things changing in the anti-AGW direction there? Why not just say “Sorry about using Kilimanjaro in our arguments. We promise never to do so again.”

  11. #11 Dodo
    March 2, 2008

    James, now that you have caught Anthony Watts violating the weather/climate dichotomy in one blog post, maybe you should say something substantial about his work with surveying US weather stations.

    In civilized debates, cheap shots come with a price. Surely you are not planning to go and cut off Watts’ middle finger?

  12. #12 Kathy Larkin
    March 2, 2008

    Dear Mr. Hrynyshyn,
    I found your article quite interesting. I am someone who has been interested in the global weather problem for years.
    I take the view that we have a problem, perhaps caused for the most part by humans or perhaps it is part of the planet’s cycle. No matter, we have to look into it.
    I would like you to know that I found your site through the Arts & Letters site you derided. They may be to the right of what we might think but they do promote intelligent inquiry.

  13. #13 Justin Levine
    March 2, 2008

    Need to echo a point that other commenters have already made – It is the man-made global warming PROPONENTS that use “weather” (as opposed to “climate”) to bolster their arguments, not the skeptics. The whole point of the Kilimanjaro story was to point out the hypocrisy.

    James – Can you at least admit that global warming alarmists (including many scientists) use individual instances of “weather” (as opposed to “climate”) to try and boost their arguments? If that is the case, will then admit that future instances of unusually warm weather this summer or a single case of “record-setting” temperatures in a specific city is not proof of anything since that is only “weather” and not “climate”? If it turns out that there are unusually cool temps this summer, that would also just be “weather” and not “climate”, which would again prove nothing, right?

    If we can agree that global warming alarmists cynically use instances of individual weather instances to falsely try and bolster their arguments, what are you prepared to do to try and stop them and/or condemn their actions?

  14. #14 Robert Henry
    March 2, 2008

    So CDD should not give “equal treatment to genuine science and ill-informed polemics”.Who should distinguish between the two? I say put everything out there and let us ordinary folks make our judgment. I believe that polemics can be whipped fairly easily by science. I believe we can make up our own minds quite well, thank you, Mr. Hrynyshyn. Keep going CDD!

  15. #15 Justin Levine
    March 2, 2008

    Another question – How much change must there be in the “climate” before we experience a permanent change in “weather” such that everyone will notice? Clearly we haven’t reached anywhere close to that point yet. If there is no permanent change in “weather”, then why should anyone be concerned about a change in “climate” as you distinguish between the two?

  16. #16 Lance
    March 2, 2008

    Mr. Hrynyshyn, (Is that really your name or does the “y” key stick on your keyboard?)

    Being a frequent reader of both your blog and Anthony Watts’ Watts Up With That I would have to say that your blog is far more often filled with ideological polemic than Mr. Watts’ blog.

    Also as pointed out by another poster, Anthony is not anonymous. He has been a meteorologist for over 25 years and is currently engaged in a survey of the USHCN weather data collection sites used by NASA to produce the GISS data set among other projects.

    He has installed a 10 KW solar array on his home and a 125 KW array on a local school. How ’bout you. He just happens to be skeptical about the evidence for AGW.

    Also your contribution to the dialogue on AGW seems to be limited to echoing Al Gore and RealClimate and making fatuous statements like…

    The point is, the overwhelming majority of the world’s glaciers are melting faster than they used to.

    Well Duh! The earth is currently warming from the little ice age and many glaciers, like the one atop Mt Kilimanjaro, have been observed to be in decline since the end of the nineteenth century. Oh and what quantifiable evidence (not to mention units) back up the words “faster” and “used to”?

    I guess self-righteous pronouncements don’t require such scientific trivialities.

  17. #17 orion46
    March 3, 2008

    The author shows great sensitivity to the improper use of weather in a discussion of climate change but as others have already noted he seems to be more sensitive when it is used to challenge AGW arguments. After all the skeptics are reacting in kind to arguments put forth by Al Gore et. al.

    The author should also be aware that there are several audiences that comprise the climate warming debate and the language for each will be different. There is the scientific realm of the debate in which none of this silly talk about Mt Kilimanjaro offers any profit. There is also the political realm which includes the general public, political and environmental groups and the news media.

    The winning argument will have to be made with the least scientifically savvy of all the groups, the general public. They will be influenced by the media and what there own senses convey to them. The discourse in this realm is likely to be based on weather not climate. As long as weather scare tactics are used by AGW believers to influence them, it will be necessary for AGW skeptics to use those same arguments against them to embarrass and expose them to the media.

    It would of be better to avoid ‘weather tactics’ altogether but if that were to happen, there could be no climate hysteria in the general public as ‘fear fuels the engines of democracy’.

    The author wouldn’t like that.

  18. #18 Jari Mustonen
    March 3, 2008

    You are setting up a strawman. Beat it all you like. The point of WUWT was about media coverage of Climate Change and such. I think you can not deny that scare hysteria sells better than well-it-not-so-bad coverage. And as your poster boy Al Gore is using Kilimanjaro to “raise avarness” (that is scaring people), I think it is only fair that the case should be reported.

    I have not followed you blog but I suspect that you do not like junk science and junk reporting that does not support CC. These fore, in all fairness you should hate it also coming from pro-CC folks. Personally, I hate it more, when my case is badly presented. I think you should also and while you at it, point out all the other fallacies Al Gore makes and make your real case, without that influence peddler.

  19. #19 Bob
    March 3, 2008

    The metaphor is flawed, and in an illuminating way. Yes, travelling 1,000 miles from SF to Denver you end up 5,000 feet higher after many ups and downs. But what climate projections do is extend that rise out to the future. If you drive another thousand miles east you end up back at elevation 500.

  20. #20 Peter
    March 3, 2008

    Why does Climate have to be from SF to Denver? Why not Denver to SF?

  21. #21 Alex
    March 3, 2008

    The climate/weather road trip analogy is fine, but it’s not clear that its proponent understands its implications. By saying that each segment of the road trip makes up the longer trip in such a constitutive manner, one is saying by analogy that weather is qualitatively indistinct from climate. That is, after so many smaller units of weather, you get climate.

    That’s fine, but then, at some point, those isolated snows on Kilimanjaro add up. Each bit of weather is added together — the overall climate reflects those smaller weather events.

    Maybe there will not be a lot of snowy Kilimanjaro weather events on the road to dry Kilimanjaro climate. However, you can’t discount any particular snowy weather event because it is, by definition, your climate — it is the data from which you draw your climate conclusions. If we start getting more and more snowy Kilimanjaro days (or if January across the United States is particularly cold) such results ARE evidence of climate change (maybe small, insignificant change when compared to other results) because that is how you defined climate.

    In the last decade or so the weather events have been overwhelmingly warm, suggesting a warming climate. But if there is nothing to climate but a series of smaller weather events, then recent weather events that suggest a cool down (if such events have in fact been recorded), are perfectly relevant to rethinking climate forecasts.

  22. #22 Gerald
    March 4, 2008

    You “Warmists” use the SUMMER pictures of Kilimanjaro and we’ll use the WINTER pictures of Kilimanjaro. That’s fine with me as long as we don’t destroy our way of life and more importantly the improvements in living standards that will reduce the misery in the underdeveloped world.

  23. #23 floodguy
    March 5, 2008

    To James H.

    If increased C02 causes higher temperature, then what has caused the largest decrease is global surface temperature since 1987 b/n jan 07 and jan 08?

    In combination of the quiet and spotless sun, back-to-back relatively quiet (below average) tropical season in both the Atlantic, Indian & Pacific, record sea ice in the Antartic last June 07, record snow and cold in the Southern Hemisphere last summer 07, record snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere winter 08, and very mild summer currently in the Southern Hemisphere summer 08?

    I understand climate and weather don’t always follow a straight line, but that’s alot of data plotting pointing in an opposite direction, when C02 is at its highest levels in modern times?

  24. #24 James Hrynyshyn
    March 6, 2008

    Floodguy: Short answer: natural short-term cycles including ENSO and solar activity. Read Hansen’s discussion of the subject here for the details.

  25. #25 sohbet
    March 28, 2009

    thanks. by Brooklyn

  26. #26 AGW=AlGoresWrong
    February 10, 2010

    Green is the new Red. Communist dreamers have found their most effective lie to date in order to bring about the ‘utopian’ World Socialist (dis)Order that Lenin always spoke of. AGW is a complete and utter lie bent on destroying Capitalism. Period. Need proof? What caused the last 100 ice ages to end you nitwits?! Cavemen in Fred Flinstone SUV’s? Gore is a scammer dedicated to self advancement at the expense of everyone else’s livelihood, like most democrat power drunk politicians who Legislate legalized theft from the earners (taxes), give it to the lazy handout seeking hordes (social programs) to thus buy votes for continued public positions of power. Absolutely disgusting.

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