The Tarps of Kilimanjaro

Morton, Oliver

2003 Nov 17

Book ID 752

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Morton, Oliver The Tarps of Kilimanjaro, 2003 Nov 17
Extract Author: Oliver Morton
Extract Date: November 17, 2003

Drape the cliffs in white polypropylene fabric

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Reading about this [the melting snows], Euan Nisbet, a Zimbabwean greenhouse gas specialist at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, was struck by a fairly simple solution: drape the cliffs in white polypropylene fabric. Sunlight bounces off, and the ice below stays cool. The result would look like a giant washing line: God's crisp, white sheets aired out three miles up in the sky.

Nisbet, whose family tree is thick with foresters, stresses that he doesn't see this as a permanent solution - but it would buy some decades, even a century, during which ways could be found to develop reforestation plans good for the mountain and the people who live beneath it.

The task of protecting the ice, while monumental, would not be impossible; the relatively small size of the ice fields is, after all, the whole point. In principle it would be well within the grasp of the world's grandmaster wrapper, Christo. "Running Fence," the Christo masterpiece that snaked through 25 miles of Sonoma and Marin counties in California for a couple of weeks in 1976, would be easily long enough to girdle the two main ice fields.

Given that the cliffs are 60 to 150 feet high, their covering would have to be taller than "Running Fence"; but the total amount of fabric required would probably be no greater than that used for the bright pink skirts Christo spread out around the islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay in 1983.

Indeed, Christo and his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, would make good consultants for the project; the team that persuaded German parliamentarians to let them wrap the Reichstag might well persuade the Tanzanian government to allow the same thing to be done to the country's best-known feature. Getting hundreds of thousands of square yards of fabric to the mountain top would be fairly easy - pack it up tightly and throw it out the back of a transport plane. Hanging it off the ice cliffs would be tricky, and require a lot of help. But it is hard to imagine that, if the money for such a project were to be found, the volunteers would not come running from around the world. And once the hanging is done, the main job would be over.

The rest of the preservation effort might just consist of a few snow machines to keep the top surface fresh and white in the months when no snow falls. The fresher the ice the more sunlight it reflects; the less light absorbed, the less the ice will melt.

The effort to preserve a square mile of ice in the equatorial sky could become a powerful local and universal symbol. Cloaking the ice cliffs of Kilimanjaro would not just borrow the techniques of an art installation - it would be a work of art in itself. Done properly, it would be a preservation of beauty that is itself, beautiful.

What's more, preserving the ice would be a way of saying that we do not have to accept environmental change, even when it looks inevitable.

The white tarps would float above the clouds a tentative hope: the hope that human will and ingenuity just might be able to meet the challenges of a century in which more change will be faced, and more protection needed, than at any other time in human history - or Kilimanjaro's.

Extract ID: 4436