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Volcano Above the Clouds

PBS Airdate: November 25, 2003
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NARRATOR: Kilimanjaro: the name in Swahili means "shining mountain." At almost 20,000 feet, it rises above the clouds. Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain and one of the tallest volcanoes in the world. It supports a surprising variety of environments from lush tropical rainforests to frigid polar-like glaciers. But in recent years, the glaciers which surround the summit have been shrinking; in the last century, 80 percent of them have disappeared.

And what if a catastrophic event should occur, just like the landslide at Mount St. Helens in 1980?

This international expedition will risk the hazards of high-altitude mountaineering, searching for answers to new scientific questions.

Now there is a critical question about this mountain that symbolizes Africa: Is Kilimanjaro dying? Join the expedition in Volcano Above the Clouds, up next on NOVA.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

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NARRATOR: An island in the sky, the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro. Forty miles wide, covering an area 50 times the size of Manhattan, its massive flanks create their own microclimate. The water which flows off Kilimanjaro is vital to the mountain's varied plant life. And the isolation of its forests has allowed for many species to evolve. It's a paradise, especially for those who want to study its unusual environments.

Robin Buxton is a naturalist who has dedicated his life to understanding the area around Kilimanjaro.

ROBIN BUXTON (Naturalist): I was born in East Africa, and it's a place that I have always come back to. Now there are concerns that Kilimanjaro is dying, and that's important both to the people who live on the mountain and for the visitors from all over the world who visit it. I am going to try to climb Kilimanjaro, which will be very difficult for me, but I think it's well worth doing if we can answer some of these questions about its health.

NARRATOR: Robin has also spent his life overcoming a personal tragedy. At the age of two, when Robin and his family were living here, he contracted polio, leaving him permanently disabled. The same infection killed his father. Robin has always wanted to climb this mountain. It will be a supreme test of his abilities, but he feels an urgency to do it now.

When the first European travelers came to this part of East Africa, they were astonished to discover that high above the plains rose a mountain, so astonished that at first they were unsure whether the snow on its top was really cloud cover.

Kilimanjaro is so big that it creates its own weather system, and the clouds which often cover the mountain provide rainfall for the many Tanzanians who live nearby. They, too, are desperately concerned that the mountain may be dying, putting their livelihoods at risk.

Robin is meeting an old Tanzanian friend, Michael Ngatoluwa, a park ranger and naturalist who has been with him on previous expeditions but has never climbed Kilimanjaro.

ROBIN BUXTON: Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA (Park Ranger): Hi, Robin.

ROBIN BUXTON: It's very, very good to see you.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Me too. How are you?

ROBIN BUXTON: I'm well, thank you. How are you?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: I'm okay.

ROBIN BUXTON: And your family?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: They are all fine.

ROBIN BUXTON: They're all fine?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yes.

ROBIN BUXTON: Excellent.

NARRATOR: For Michael, as for Robin, this will be an adventure.

Africa's Eastern tip is scarred by the Great Rift, a fracture zone running from north to south. Along the fault lines lie volcanoes, small and large, but in Tanzania the biggest dwarfs them all: Kilimanjaro.

The climb is a hard one. Only a third of those who set off for the summit ever manage to reach it. The route will take them past the villages around the mountain, up through the forest, and then over the volcanic plateau until they reach the steep cone at the center.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: The reason to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is I really want to get to the highest point and that snow on top of that mountain. It really makes me like dream. I'm just trying to think, "How could I get there with the difficult weather?" Also, I'd like to touch that snow and to get close to it. In a tropical area, it's amazing thing to have snow on the mountain. The only snow I see may be on the television. In Europe or some places in America or whatever, there is snow, but in Africa, this is a really amazing thing. So I proud, and I will be happy if I will get there and to see things like that.

NARRATOR: Michael will be one of the few Tanzanians to try to go up Kilimanjaro. The mountaineering equipment is too expensive, so most of the people who live around the mountain have never climbed it, except for those hired to support foreign expeditions. But these Tanzanians view the mountain as an essential part of their local culture because it provides them with fertile soil for their crops.

ROBIN BUXTON: So your daughter is Ideta? What does she like to do?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: She likes sports and writing and reading while she...she don't know, but she pretends.

ROBIN BUXTON: Great.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: And she's very talkative.

NARRATOR: The local Tanzanians have developed what they call the tree-farming system, where huge trees provide shade for the crops growing below.

ROBIN BUXTON: I'm used to farming systems where there's one crop. And here we've got trees to give shade—we've got bananas, we've got these yams, we've got coffee. Why do we have such a complicated way of growing crops?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yes, if you look behind here, this tall tree and this is to give shade for this coffee.

ROBIN BUXTON: And then the bananas, they like the shade too?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: The banana, yes. They need moisture and a little bit wet, so they grow very well.

ROBIN BUXTON: And does this help the soil?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Exactly.

ROBIN BUXTON: And without the trees and without the bananas and everything, the soil would go and the water would also go.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Exactly.

NARRATOR: It's the water flowing off Kilimanjaro that is so vital to the health of the mountain and to the Tanzanians who live around it. The question Robin and Michael need to answer is whether the shrinking glaciers will also dry up Kilimanjaro's vital water supply.

ROBIN BUXTON: Where does all this water come from?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: This water comes from the mountain.

ROBIN BUXTON: Yes, which part of the mountain? From the top?

NARRATOR: The answer is not a simple one. While the melting glaciers supply some of the water, there is also rainfall generated in the extensive forests on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

ROBIN BUXTON: And as we go further up, we find real cloud forest. And in the cloud forest, where it doesn't necessarily rain, but...the clouds form in among the trees, and the water condenses on the trees, and that is a still important source of water though much higher up than we are here.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yes. As you see, because there is plenty of water running down.

NARRATOR: The mountain has evolved numerous ways to trap the water. As Robin and Michael walk up, seemingly every surface has mosses, ferns and other plants growing so that moisture can be retained. The whole cloud forest acts as a gigantic sponge, making it a naturalist's paradise.

ROBIN BUXTON: This is magical.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: So Robin, are you okay to climb the mountain?

ROBIN BUXTON: I think we have to see. I don't feel very confident at all.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Why?

ROBIN BUXTON: Because it's very, very high, it's a very long walk. But I think we must try to do it mustn't we?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: The things which will become very hard for Robin to walk up—it's a little bit mud and it's slippery—because he tends to use a lot of energy to go a little bit higher. It's really hard work for him. By the way, I think he could manage to do it, no matter it's hard or whatever.

NARRATOR: As Robin and Michael get higher and higher up in the cloud forest, they begin to see some of the plants that have made Kilimanjaro so famous. Because the mountain is so isolated, it has evolved many of its own species, indeed it's said that there are more species unique to Kilimanjaro than there are to some entire countries.

Kilimanjaro is sometimes described as an island in the sky, because it has evolved its own unique ecosystem, which may now be at risk.

For Robin and Michael to move further up the mountain, they will need the support of a full expedition with porters and all the equipment necessary for high altitude mountaineering.

ROBIN BUXTON: Here we are where we set off on to the mountain proper. It's absolute pandemonium: lots of people looking for work as porters, people being matched to the loads we've got, and really quite a chaotic scene. The vehicles had trouble bringing the kit to this point—stuck in the mud and things like that—so we are a lot later setting off than we had hoped to be. It's going to be a bit of a saga getting to camp before it's dark.

NARRATOR: Joining Robin and Michael is German geologist Volker Lorenz, a world expert on volcanoes.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY (Team Leader): Exaudi, we're in a position now. All these boxes, these three boxes and these six...

NARRATOR: Another geologist, Kevin Dougherty, already knows the mountain well and is the team's leader. They must carry all the normal supplies plus the extra film equipment. That means a total of fifty porters will be needed for the early stages of the climb. It's going to be a tough trip for everyone. The Tanzanians all come from the lowland area around the mountain, so they are not acclimatized to high altitude living.

ROBIN BUXTON: This shows very well how the small holdings are moving up into the forest area and forest being cleared the whole time to make way for farming. It's been interesting to see the state of the forest. Tanzania of course needs the timber. It's an economic resource, it's a very important resource, but from the point of view of the Kilimanjaro ecosystems, it breaks up the natural forest in a way which makes if very difficult for animals to move between bits of the forest.

Having said that, we've just seen Colobus monkeys in the pine trees, which is very interesting. In some ways that's encouraging, but I think that the fact that one species is prepared to use the pines does not necessarily mean that everything in the garden's rosy.

There's a huge number of children around, all their families—population's growing the whole time on the mountain. Lots of people all the way up here, very nearly to the edge of the national park.

It's always exciting, this point, and feeling that we're really starting the top part of an expedition and get to high ground. You'll probably hear me get breathless because we're here at about 9,000 feet and breathing starts to get a bit more difficult. The air's thin.

NARRATOR: Finally, after many hours of packing, the expedition begins. After two days of climbing, the team is above the trees and are now at the same elevation as the clouds. They've reached a region of heathers that grow in this dry soil and, like many other plants on Kilimanjaro, can reach unusual heights.

For Volker Lorenz, this is his first sight of the volcanic craters that cover Kilimanjaro, for Kilimanjaro is not just one volcano, but three.

Eight hundred thousand years ago, a series of eruptions resulted in the first of these, Mount Shira, rising up from the East African plain. Then another giant volcano formed to the east, Mawenzi. Finally, only 300,000 years ago, a volcano called Kibo erupted between these two peaks, climbing on the shoulders of the two existing giants to become one of the tallest volcanoes in the world.

However, the craters have since eroded, especially that of Shira, the oldest, which the team is now crossing.

VOLKER LORENZ (University of Würzburg): That's a nice piece.

NARRATOR: Volker and Kevin are trying to determine precisely how the craters collapsed, because this may forecast what happens to Kilimanjaro in the future.

VOLKER LORENZ: These vesicles, they are the result of the magma.

NARRATOR: Until recently, scientists assumed that the roof of the craters had simply caved in.

VOLKER LORENZ: Since St. Helens, there's a new model. Because of the steep slopes and some eruptions and material moving in from below, you get slope instability, and a lot of material is moving sideways. And the idea at present is moving to the north, and you get a big scar, like at St. Helens.

NARRATOR: Volker is concerned that Kilimanjaro may do what St. Helens did in 1980, not erupt, but suffer a landslide, ripping open the side of the mountain and releasing a pyroclastic flow that devastated a huge area around it. The forests for seven miles around St. Helens were completely wiped out.

Looking at Kibo, the main summit of Kilimanjaro, Volker and Kevin can see that the rim had collapsed, at one point in time, from just such a landslide. Could a more serious one happen? And would it release the magma from deep below the surface?

VOLKER LORENZ: I'm sure this crater has a long history. It probably was much deeper than it is today, and then it was filled.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Looks like we've got some lion prints here. I'm quite surprised to see these here, actually, at this altitude.

VOLKER LORENZ: These are real lions?

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Yeah, these are certainly lion prints. I mean, have a look at the size of them. They are lion prints. I thought they disappeared long ago. I've not seen any evidence of them for a long time. Do you have your altimeter on you?

VOLKER LORENZ: Just a moment.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: This is quite unusual for up here, and certainly lion, without a shadow of doubt, and quite recent as well. It rained heavily two days ago, so certainly in the last, umm...

VOLKER LORENZ: Three thousand, six hundred, forty five meters.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Which is about pretty much exactly 12,000 feet.

VOLKER LORENZ: These crystals...

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Well this actually froze over last night. And if you look carefully in here, there is no evidence of that.

VOLKER LORENZ: No, there isn't.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Which means that this could be, could have occurred earlier this morning or certainly within the last 24 hours.

VOLKER LORENZ: So the lion could still be around us?

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Oh, absolutely. It lives...there is lion up here, and I should think this lion's territory is this crater.

VOLKER LORENZ: It's frightening here, to have lions up here.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: It's frightening, but where there's food, there's lion.

NARRATOR: Robin is lagging behind the others. The strain of crossing the great volcanic crater of Shira is beginning to show. It's taking him twice as long as the rest of the party to get from camp to camp, even though he is pushing himself as hard as he can. But he has climbed mountains of a similar height before, and he is determined to climb this one.

ROBIN BUXTON: It was a longer walk than I expected. I got very exhausted on it. We've come up, apparently, only 1,000 feet from where we camped last night, but it felt like an awful lot more than that. And I was really cold when I got in my tent, so got in the puffa jacket and the sleeping bag, and I'm warming up now. But I feel a lot better, mild sickness threw something out of the system and that often helps to clear things. So that's how I am, and it's going to be quite a recovery story overnight I think. Arms are feeling quite sore because I've used my sticks a heck of a lot today, but we're here and there's a wonderful sunset out there. Isn't that just gorgeous? The sun sliding down the southern slope of Meru and orange glow spreading under the clouds to the north of there? But I am feeling quite cold sitting here in the mouth of my tent, and it would be good to feel warmer. So that's partly that story—is just time and keeping in the sleeping bag and in the puffa jacket—and partly it's steeling myself to eat something, which doesn't feel at all appetizing at the moment, but that is typical of altitude, so that's the sort of thing we have to cope with and say, "Well, tough, you have got to eat."

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: At the end of the day, safety is our biggest concern. And the weather isn't, isn't...it's still continuing to be foul.

CHRIS VILE: So it's raining down here, but it's probably...what would it be? Snowing up there?

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: It is snowing up there because...

NARRATOR: The team has a problem. They are trying to get up to the Western Breach, the dip in the side of the mountain caused by a landslide, but much more snow has fallen than is normal for this time of year.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: But the point is, is that the reason that we have actually come at this time of year is, it should be, there should be very little snow, if any at all. I backed off last year with four clients, off the Western Breach. We had the intention of going up, just with guides, up to the summit and down the Barafu route. We're actually talking about in much worse conditions going up, with...

GUIDE: We don't actually know what the conditions are like.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: We know they are worse, though.

ROBIN BUXTON: I've talked to people who have been up in January a few years ago, and they were saying they thought I could probably manage it, but then it was very dry; there was no snow up the route to go up.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: What I would like to do, particularly at this point when we're climbing higher up on the mountain, is to slow the pace down and to keep moving rather than take lots of stops, and just...at a very, very slow pace to enable us to acclimatize as we're moving. I'm actually inclined to get Robin up before the rest of us, um, if that's okay with you.

ROBIN BUXTON: Sure.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: ...five thirty for Robin as a time to wake up and preferably leaving fairly shortly.

ROBIN BUXTON: I had better miss dinner and go to be then, Kev.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Robin, would you like a cup of tea?

ROBIN BUXTON: Cold one is it?

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Yes, a bit frosted. There you go.

ROBIN BUXTON: That'll bring life to the system. That's brilliant.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Do you have a headache? Feel fine?

ROBIN BUXTON: No, no headache.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Excellent, excellent.

NARRATOR: Kilimanjaro is famous for the mist and bad weather that can descend on the mountain. Together with the cold and the altitude, it can make conditions hard for any expedition. After a while, it becomes too difficult for Robin, and the porters suggest that they take turns carrying him.

ROBIN BUXTON: Well if you tip me in the stream it will be a well-deserved bath, even if it is rather cold, because I think I am beginning to smell on this mountain.

Man seemed to enjoy it as much as I think I did, which is...he is one of our real stalwarts, obviously. And great credit to him for saying that that was the easiest way to get me down there, because I think that could have taken me two hours to walk down that scree slope, quite easily. And with this mist and cloud and being able to see 20 yards sometimes, it has been rather depressing at times, and I'm thinking, "Where the hell are we?"

NARRATOR: Robin and Michael find themselves descending into a sheltered dip beside the mountain. Here, there is a valley full of giant senecio, a plant that usually grows to only a few feet, but, here, towers above them.

It's a magical place. Kilimanjaro is known for its giant plant life. In the morning, when the skies clear, this enormous valley is revealed. It is called "Barranco," and it is where the greatest concentration of Kilimanjaro's most unusual plants can be found.

ROBIN BUXTON: Well, Michael, we talked about looking forward to finding the senecios, and here we are with a great forest of them. Isn't this exciting?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yeah.

ROBIN BUXTON: This nearest one seems to have the remains of flowers on it, and I can't see the remains of flowers on any of the others, so I think flowering must be a fairly rare event.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yeah.

ROBIN BUXTON: It's like old leather isn't it, these leaves?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: The water just goes down into this part, because this is... it's...looks soft and it collect some sort of water and it keep, it keeps in the leaves.

ROBIN BUXTON: The evolutionary process of these plants is even affecting the dead part isn't it? So it doesn't decay away and fall off, but it stays with the plant. This has several layers. This is a very, very thick layer of insulation. We've just been...I hope we can put this back nicely for the plant's duvet tonight, because it needs that.

NARRATOR: All the plants in the Barranco Valley have been forced to adapt to the tough mountain environment. These lobelia have evolved a unique survival strategy: they store a type of sugar which prevents the plant from freezing each night and losing moisture during the warmer days.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: This is a common plant in altitude like this, and it grows only in this altitude, 3,800 meters.

ROBIN BUXTON: It's amazing to think that this is, this is so closely related, same genus as things as people grow in hanging baskets in English gardens. And it is so very, very different.

I think the Barranco here, whilst it's stark, and it's got all this rock around it, it's a very, very live place. And my interest in biology and ecology, interest in why plants—like these giant senecios, these giant groundsels, the giant lobelias—why they're giant, why the things are so silvery, all the plants around and you can see in the background, why they've come to reflect the light...that is what really fascinates me; it's the interaction of the altitude, the extremes of cold and heat, and the light, and how those plants and animals really cope with the difficulties that it presents. And perhaps it is a bit of a privilege to have been able to come here to experience for myself some of that difficulty that these things are adapted to live with the whole time.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile the team is still concerned that there might be too much snow on the mountain. Kevin decides to send an advance party to see if the route is passable.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Our biggest concern is the fact that we're taking up 25 porters up the mountain plus about 10 of us and around eight guides as well. We're a big party, we have about 40 people. And it looks like there has been quite a lot of snow melt in the last few days, and with that amount of people, it's got to be safe. How far do you want to go up there today? And how far do you think it's necessary to go up to have a good look?

EXAUD: For three hours, up to four hours.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: But beyond Arrow Glacier, how far do you expect to go up?

KENTON KOOL: About a third to half way up.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: A third to half way up.

NARRATOR: Kilimanjaro's notoriously turbulent weather system can close in on a climbing expedition with frightening speed. Kevin's principal worry is whether Robin will be able to make it.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: My main concern for Robin is the fact that there is still a lot of snow on the Western Breach, and that will make it quite awkward for him. And more importantly, if he were to not succeed, to come down off the Western Breach with snow is quite tricky. The second reason is he's been quite under the weather on the first few days on the mountain—I think that's paid its toll—and on top of that is the fact that the altitude is, well, it's quite high, the altitude having a bit of an impact.

NARRATOR: When the advance party returns, they report the route to the summit is just passable, although very difficult because of the heavy snow. Each individual team member must now decide whether they should go up or down.

ROBIN BUXTON: Well, we've come a long way in seven days on the mountain, and I have decided that for me to go to the top, with the amount of snow on the mountain, is really asking an awful lot of myself and the people who have to look after me in this process. So my decision is that the team goes on, and they're fit and strong and they'll see all the things that we wanted to do. But for me, I shall walk out along this sort of contour, somewhere between 13 and 14 thousand feet. One of the things in my mind is, of course, that mountains do claim lives, and Kilimanjaro is no exception there. The idea that one should go to the top at all costs is not something that has ever really appealed to me. Rock and ice are not really my environment at all, but it would be nice to claim to have done it. So it's been a bit of a twinge to come to that decision, but I think it's the right one for everybody here. The team can move much less encumbered, they can get to their objectives, they can get the questions they need to answer, answered, the things they need to look at, particularly the glaciers and the top of the volcano looked at. Yes, there's a little bit of a sense of sadness, sadness that my own strength isn't good enough to say, "Yes, let's face the challenge." But the truth is, I have a family, in fact one of my children's on the train to school at the moment, and they come first.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Robin's decision that he have to go down, I support him. That's a good decision, no matter we were together in our plan to go all the way to the top, but so far this is a good decision. For him, this height, it's quite far enough for him. I'll miss him very much, but that's the option. He have to go down according to this weather, and also it's quite a lot for him to continue. So, I miss him, but still, it's fine for him to go down.

NARRATOR: Michael will now try to answer some of the questions that Robin was most concerned about, particularly whether the disappearing glaciers on the top of the mountain are important sources of water.

The team decides to begin their two-day assault on the Western Breach. As they climb even higher into the clouds, they pass a great volcanic formation rising out of the mist. It's known as "Lava Tower."

They are now approaching the snow line. They find some melt-water here, but clearly not enough to sustain the forests below. At this altitude, just below the Western Breach, little plant-life survives, and the cold is just as hostile to humans. In the thin air and low temperatures, tempers rapidly flare over the issue of how to best put up the tents.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Here, where we are now, we are at Arrow Glacier, so we overnight here. It's cold, and it's difficult to tell you how much, how many centigrade, but I mean, it's freezing cold, and sometime it's hard to breathe, and it gets difficult. I see this snow and so far it's not very scares me as I thought before, and I still feel comfortable. And I hope I will get there, and I will manage to get to the top. Tomorrow we plan to go to the crater, and we plan to overnight two nights over there, and then we will see what we arrange for the next leg to the summit.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: We have almost a full moon, we're covered in mist, we can't see where we're going, and at this point, quite honestly, it's very apprehensive. And all I want to do is get up the hill and get it over and done with. And that's usually how I feel at this stage in proceedings on the mountain. The night before the summit, I always just wish I was walking on it. I can't wait till I wake up in the morning and actually get it over and done with.

NARRATOR: At 18,000 feet, walking up the rock-face of the Western Breach is a phenomenal physical challenge. With little oxygen in the air, every step becomes a real effort. The team is worried that if they don't get up the Western Breach fast enough the strong sun will melt the recently fallen snow and release rock falls.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: The quicker we get out of here, the better. The best place to stop is like, you see, this cliff on our left, some location like that, or even where this lot are, but in the rocks, so anything that comes down from the cliffs above, bounce over.

NARRATOR: After an exhausting twelve hour climb, they finally emerge on the plateau just below the summit. This is where the great glaciers surround the volcanic crater of Kilimanjaro.

VOLKER LORENZ: Gee! That's the glacier! Unbelievable! Here, on top of this big volcano! At lunchtime I almost fell asleep. I was exhausted, I was tired, didn't sleep too well last night, but then realizing we're closer and closer to the rim, summit rim, I felt invigorated. I certainly would like to be down there to look in to the crater.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: We'll go down there and have a look. Is it what you expected, Volker?

VOLKER LORENZ: It's even more. I've seen photographs of this, but to stand here and look at it, that's something different, more exciting.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Absolutely. Can you smell the sulpher?

VOLKER LORENZ: Oh, yes.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: I've just had a strong whiff of it.

VOLKER LORENZ: It's really exciting. It's such steep walls, that's a corrupt crater.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: About 100 hundred years ago, there was a rumor that local people around here saw emissions coming out of here, but it's not actually been documented. I mean, this could be relatively recent.

VOLKER LORENZ: Oh yes, the rim deposits, the gray rim, which is nicely to be seen, looks very, very young.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Because it's so uniform as well.

NARRATOR: All the indicators show that the volcano may have erupted within the last several hundred years, meaning it can still be regarded as potentially active. To determine just how active Kilimanjaro might become, they need to descend into the bowl at its center.

Here, in the oxygen starved atmosphere, the heat of the crater floor and severe cold make it seem as if they are walking on the moon. Volker and Kevin are looking for "fumaroles," the vents from which volcanic gases escape into the atmosphere.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: This section seems very active. This is warm as well, very hot here. Hold on, this is an active one. Let's take a reading. I think... ow...this one's hot as well, and there's moisture on my fingers. These two are certainly active.

VOLKER LORENZ: Condensating steam.

NARRATOR: By taking the temperature of these fumaroles, they can estimate where the magma lies below the crater surface.

VOLKER LORENZ: Can you hold it? Hold it, even if you burn your fingers, it doesn't matter. Okay, the reading is 78.5.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Seventy eight point five. There's steam coming out, quite a bit

VOLKER LORENZ: The reading is 77.2. Okay?

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Take it out. But it hasn't melted?

NARRATOR: The fact that there are such high temperatures and sulphur deposits on the inner ring of the crater indicates that there is active magma close to the surface. Volker estimates just 400 feet below.

VOLKER LORENZ: Wow, this is really something. It's very steep.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Spectacular.

VOLKER LORENZ: I would assume something like 100 meters.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Across?

VOLKER LORENZ: No, deep.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Ah, sorry. I think we can actually see the bottom, at least 100 meters.

VOLKER LORENZ: It's a magnificent crater.

NARRATOR: Just like the side of the mountain, the crater walls here are very steep and potentially unstable, making a landslide a serious possibility. It could also expose the molten rock at the center of the volcano.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: When I saw the glacier for the first time, it look like something which I didn't expect to see in my eyes. It's really...I cannot explain, and it's something which is very beautiful. The glaciers I expected to see it's just like the one I see in the pictures, in the flat surface. But the one I see now is totally different, and it's big, really amazing because it's something like a tower, a big tower of glaciers.

NARRATOR: It's the rising warm air given off by the volcano that sculpts the glaciers into such fanciful shapes. And it's atmospheric radiation that causes most of the water from the glaciers to evaporate.

As Michael studies the glaciers, it's clear that they are not a major source of water for the mountain.

The glaciers of Kilimanjaro are shrinking. Recent research has shown this is likely due to global warming and other causes. The glaciers have been consistently retreating since the German explorer, Hans Meyer, first climbed the mountain in 1889.

It wasn't until 1912 that the first real survey was done of the icecap. According to the latest research, since that time, about 80 percent of the ice field has vanished.

And the heat from the volcano below is another factor. But whatever the cause of the melting, it is estimated that by 2015 the glaciers will all be gone.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: If glacier disappear on Kilimanjaro, I feel so sad, because if glacier disappear that means it will be a lot of problem, and also the beauty of this mountain will disappear.

NARRATOR: Early the next morning, the team sets off to reach the actual summit, still almost a thousand feet above the crater plateau. This will be their last climb through the snow.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: The music helps me very much up here because it keeps me in a rhythm when I am walking. Now I am walking, I have to follow this pace, so it helps me very much.

NARRATOR: When Hans Meyer first climbed the peak, he named it "Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze" after the German emperor. But after Tanzania achieved its independence in 1961, it was renamed "Uhuru Peak," as a symbol of African liberation. The word uhuru, in Swahili, means simply "freedom."

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: I made it! I can't believe it! Top of the world, the highest point in Africa. This is the point of my dream. Wow, look at that, a massive view, the glaciers.

VOLKER LORENZ: It's hard to believe, but here we are.

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Look at that view, eh?

VOLKER LORENZ: The top of Africa!

KEVIN DOUGHERTY: Congratulations. Well done, Volker.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Hello, Robin?

ROBIN BUXTON: Hello, is that you Michael? Where are you?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: I'm on the top now.

ROBIN BUXTON: On the top of the hole?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yes, I made it.

ROBIN BUXTON: What's it like?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: It's very cold up here, and I'm happy I made it.

ROBIN BUXTON: Excellent. What can you see?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: I can see the Heim glacier, and I can see the crater.

ROBIN BUXTON: How do you feel?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: I feel okay, a little bit tired, but I'm okay.

ROBIN BUXTON: And is Volker with you?

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Yes, Volker made it, too.

ROBIN BUXTON: Well listen, maybe we can fly up and see the mountain together later. Because I think that's the only way I'm going to see it now.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Okay.

ROBIN BUXTON: Take care coming down then, Michael.

MICHAEL NGATOLUWA: Thank you, I hope to see you again. 'Bye, Robin, I'll see you when I get there.

ROBIN BUXTON: I regret quite a lot not going to the top. The walk down was pretty hard for me, and I needed a lot of help from the guides who came with me and the porters. I think it was definitely the right decision. From what I have heard from the rest of the crew who went up the Western Breach, they had a hard time. It was slippery and icy, and I think from the point of view of everything we've been trying to do, definitely the right decision that I should have walked around.

NARRATOR: Robin's decision, though a personal setback, contributed to the safety and success of the expedition. For the team, six days of strenuous walking had put them into position on the barren plateau just below the summit. From there, some climbed another 12 hours to reach almost 20,000 feet.

Overall, the expedition had met its goal. The team had reached the top of the mountain. They now know that these glaciers, formed more than eleven thousand years ago, are sensitive indicators of climate change. But Robin also believes that it's likely that plant-life on and around Kilimanjaro will continue to thrive.

Whether the shrinking is due to the end of an ice age, the heat of the volcano, or to global warming, Robin and Michael may be among the last to see the beauty of the glaciers on this majestic mountain.

On NOVA's Website, the adventure continues beyond Kilimanjaro, the African continent's tallest peak. Explore the highest mountain on each of the seven continents at PBS.org.

To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video, at 1-800-255-9424.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Volcano Above the Clouds

Written, Produced and Directed by
Hugh Thomson

Program Executives, France 5
Ann Julienne
Jacques Angerie

Executive Producer, Granada
Robert MacIver

Executive Producers, SWR
Walter Sucher
Rolf Schlenker

Series Producer
Liesl Clark

Consulting Producer
David Breashears

Narrated by
Jeremiah Kissel

Associate Producers
Alison Murray
Arabella Cecil

Edited by
David Barrett
Rob Harrington
Bernice Schneider

Camera
Simon Ffrench
Chris Vile

Sound Recordist
James Pursey

Music
David Poore

Animation
Big Squid
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Production Manager
Maria Morley

Postproduction Facilities
Films @ 59

Online Editors
Jon Everett
Tony Osborne

Audio Mix
Richard Lambert
Richard Crosby
John Jenkins

Archival Material
N.A.R.A
Wall To Wall

Special Thanks
Rift Valley Safaris Ltd.
Roger Bilham, University of Colorado at Boulder
Robin Buxton
Volker Lorenz
Michael Ngatoluwa
Kevin Dougherty
Producer for Icon Films Jeremy Evans

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Queene Coyne

Publicity
Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Tom Stebbins

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Managers
Holly Archibald
Lola Norman-Salako

Paralegal
Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Maureen Barden Lynch

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA/WGBH, La Cinquième, Südwestrundfunk, Gédéon Programmes, Meridian, and NHK Co-Production.

"Kilimanjaro" © MMIII Meridian Broadcasting Ltd.

"Volcano Above the Clouds" © 2003 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Volcano Above the Clouds

Vanishing Into Thin Air

Vanishing Into Thin Air
Glaciers are shrinking, not just on Kilimanjaro but worldwide. Does it matter?

Tour Kilimanjaro

Tour Kilimanjaro
Visit the peak's six ecological zones, from steamy rain forests to arctic summit.

The Seven Summits

The Seven Summits
Explore the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

Mountain Weather

Mountain Weather
Find out how mountains create their own distinct weather patterns.

 

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