Kilimanjaro, the 19,340-foot mountain from which 100 paragliders will set sail next week, as seen from the south.
Douglas Hardy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Douglas Hardy usually thinks in increments of a century. The climate scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has for 13 years been trekking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro to take measurements that will help him understand the record of environmental change embedded in 11,000-year old cylinders of ice drilled out of glaciers.
Lately, though, he’s been obsessing about the weather on an hourly basis, thinking about the fluctuations in wind speed over a single day.
The change in Hardy’s attention began more than a year ago, when he received a cryptic e-mail from a guy in South Africa who sells instruments for weather stations. A client was interested in setting up a weather station at the summit to aid in some kind of paragliding stunt. They were consulting Hardy because of his expertise in understanding the weather patterns atop the roof of Africa.
Hardy initially rated the effort as a doomed-to-fail extreme sports fantasy. He wasn’t much interested in paragliding within a national park. Moreover, he knew the Tanzanian government would not allow a large group of adventurers to climb up the mountain and then jump off. Still, he responded like a scientist: the weather at the mountain top, Hardy knew from his years of research, was highly variable from year to year. Six months of data from a new weather station would not only put a redundant set of equipment on the mountain, but also would hardly be enough of a long view to provide real insight into how to pull off that kind of a spectacle.
“I offered instead to provide past measurements from my station,” Hardy said. “I saw a chance to provide them with a much higher quality of data that would ultimately impact the safety of this whole venture.”
Hardy thought it might end there. But Adrian McRae, the would-be paraglider who envisioned Wings of Kilimanjaro, was a charismatic Australian who eventually persuaded the Tanzanian government to give its approval. He recruited fellow paragliders from all over the world, and raised $1 million for various East African charities. He persuaded Hardy to generate weather data, to give them an idea about likely wind conditions, the proper season for the jump, and a sense of how weather changes over the course of a day.
“There were a couple windows I suggested—one being in July and this smaller window of time at the end of January into February,” Hardy said. “It turned out, in the end, the government really didn’t want them undertaking something of this scale in July, because that’s a much more popular time for other people to be on the mountain.”
So, on Tuesday, a small army of 1,000 guides, porters, crew, and paragliders were scheduled to begin the long march up to the top of the roof of Africa. A week from now, they will launch a record-breaking spectacle, with colorful parachutes clustering and riding drafts of air down to the plain below—a roughly 16,000-foot journey down.
Over time, Hardy has gotten excited by the charitable aspects of the feat, but he is also paying close attention because of a tropical storm in the Indian Ocean headed toward Madagascar. Even as he updates his forecast and tries to think about weather on a timescale that would be relevant to a human being looking for the ideal time to fling themselves off the top of a 19,340-foot mountain, he is still thinking like a scientist.
On the blog that he updates regularly with information about wind direction and speed, precipitation, and barometric pressure, he is careful to talk about the limits of science when it comes to prediction.
His disclaimer starts out like a normal one: “All discussion and accompanying figures on this website are for scientific purposes only, to aid in interpreting the climate on Kilimanjaro’s Northern Ice Field,” Hardy writes.
Then, he quickly takes a turn into cautions not normally found in a scientific paper.
“The author and any institutions with which the author is affiliated assume no responsibility for any application of these interpretations or these data,” he writes, “including but not limited to paragliding and hang-gliding. Be safe!”