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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: Chasing Glaciers in New Zealand

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Hannah Nicholl, our resident travel contributor, is currently globetrotting the world taking in some of the worlds most spectacular sites. This time, she heads to New Zealand and while there, she visits all the snow-capped mountain ranges and aquamarine lakes that make up the country’s awe-inspiring geology — but all is not as she expected. The effects of climate change are real. 

New Zealand is the land that time forgot. It’s a landscape that feels like it’s never known humans and would be unyielding towards anyone who tried to tame it. Its geology hits you like a stratified sledgehammer wherever you go. Snow-capped mountain ranges loom around every corner. Aquamarine lakes emerge from within hidden valleys. And roaring waves hit the jagged coastline like bombs, revealing secret, volcano-baked rocks.

Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the last places humans reached. The land that was to become modern-day New Zealand broke away from the ancient landmass of Gondwana around 65 million years ago and has been an isolated island ever since. It lay hiding round the back of Australia, unnoticed, until the Māori landed on its shores and named it Aotearoa in around 1300 (give or take a hundred years). In comparison, Australia was first inhabited around 60,000 years ago, and humans finally completed the long schlep over the Bering Strait and down through the Americas to reach the tip of Patagonia 12,000 years ago.

Seven centuries of human habitation in the grand scheme of 65 million years is nothing, which is what makes New Zealand such a unique place. But it’s also a test case for how quickly things can change, which is why I headed over to the South Island to find out more about how humans have impacted their surroundings in such a short time.

Changing the pecking order

New Zealand’s isolation, in particular, its lack of predators, has formed a unique ecosystem where the birds of the island rule the roost. They have evolved into some pretty interesting personalities. Most people have heard of the cute, flightless kiwi, but there is also the cheeky mountain parrot called the kea who stole my lunch when I was travelling through the snowy mountains of Fiordland. There are kakapos, a ginormous flightless parrot; red, blue and black pukekos that graze next to sheep in the fields of Otago; and beautiful little fantails that surprise you in the forests and give you a quick flash of their decorative behind. New Zealanders are so obsessed with their birdlife that they even have an annual ‘Bird of the Year’ award. Last year’s victor was the kererū – a native wood pigeon known for eating fermented fruits and making drunken crash landings into trees – a ‘magnificent thicc boi’ as one celebratory meme put it.


A kea with sign warning walkers of poison that has been placed in the area to kill invasive species such as possums and rats.

Despite native birds appearing all over NZ’s souvenirs and banknotes, many are now highly endangered and may not be around for much longer. The main culprit is mammalian predators who have hitchhiked over with humans and munch on birds eggs. Despite efforts to stop them, possums, rats and stoats have multiplied rapidly in their new habitat (especially the possums judging from the amount of roadkill I swerved). Domestic cats have been especially fond of the endemic birdlife, killing approximately 1.12 million native birds every year, according to Forest & Bird estimates. In 2013, economist Gareth Morgan ran for parliament with a campaign that included a scheme to eliminate cats and won 2.4% of the national vote. 

It’s not just the native birds that are under threat from human introductions. Although New Zealand has a shorter human history than any other country, it has the highest number of extinct and endangered species. Across the country, animals and plants are struggling to compete with invasive species and human byproducts – from yellow gorse bushes taking over the hillsides, to weeds clogging the pristine lakes. Pesticides and fertilisers have severely fouled waterways, while in the seas around Otago, most fish have been found with plastic in their guts despite the fact they’re swimming in one of the most remote areas on Earth. 

Even the landscape cannot escape the global changes brought about by human activity. New Zealand was shaped by ice over thousands of years, yet its mountain glaciers are now vanishing at an alarming rate. Recent reports show that New Zealand’s glaciers have shrunk by nearly a third since the 1970s and could disappear entirely by the end of the century. With this alarming news ringing in my ears, I drove as fast as I could (within the 100km speed limit of course) to confront the melt at two of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers Fox and Franz Josef both situated on the west coast of the South Island. 

A quick geology lesson

Put simply; glaciers are enormous, ancient rivers of ice that pulverise everything in front of them. Picture a sloth driving a truck down a mountain with the handbrake on: formidable, but slow.

They form when snow remains in the same area year on year. As snowfall builds upon existing snow over hundreds of years, the deeper layers are compressed under the weight and slowly becomes more compact, until the snow re-crystallises, forming dense ice. The particular formation of the crystals means there are very few air bubbles within the ice, absorbing more red light and imparting blue, giving glaciers their famed bluish glow. Although they may seem stationary, glaciers are constantly moving under their weight, carving out wide valleys as they press on down through the rock around them.


Image by the United States Geological Survey


Glaciers are remnants of the last Ice Age when woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers harassed our ancestors. This was a time when glacial ice, ice caps and ice sheets covered around a third of all land area. Those that remain – covering around 10% of land today — are time capsules of the past. Data from glacial ice cores has been central in highlighting just how much our climate has warmed over the past few centuries — and how this warming is, in turn, destroying the glaciers themselves.

Spot the glacier

It was pouring with rain when I arrived in Westland (note: I visited the glaciers in November before the heavy rains and floods at the beginning of December that has made the glaciers inaccessible for the next few months). Waterfalls spouted from rock faces as I drove through the mountains of the Haast Pass, and clouds clung to the range, making it hard to see the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Ominously, the road to Fox Glacier’s old viewpoint is closed indefinitely after floods destroyed it in February. I almost missed the makeshift car park at the foot of the current track.


Forest track to Fox Glacier

I continued on foot through a forest that felt so old that a raptor could have just popped its head through the ferns. An hour later, I reached a new viewpoint. In the distance, on the other side of the valley, I could make out the outline of the glacier… if I squinted. I was excited, but also a tad underwhelmed. Where was this titan of nature I’d heard so much about?

Surprised, but unperturbed, I jumped in the car to Franz Josef Glacier, 30 minutes down the road. Here it was hard to miss the car park. Busloads of tourists were disembarking as I pulled in. A kea strutted around hustling for food. A well-signposted track led me (and countless others) to a large U-shaped valley – the telltale sign of a glacier. Across the plain, I had my first glimpse of the glacier: a huge bluish-white lump that looked like a tongue poking out from between the peaks of two mountains. A plaque informed us that we were standing where the terminus of the glacier, or its ‘snout’, reached in 1908.

Franz Josef Glacier in 1999. NSIDC Glacier Photograph Collection


I carried on across the valley until I reached another sign, explaining that this was the 2009 terminus. Finally, I reached the current viewpoint, about 750m from the ice. The sight of the glacier up close was impressive, but I was still reeling from just how much it had retreated. Everyone was clicking away with cameras, but it felt a bit like taking a photo of a car crash. A man next to me shrugged “It was a lot bigger last time I was here” and walked away.

The view of the glacier from my visit

But isn’t melting part of the natural cycle?

Many climate change sceptics will argue that thawing and freezing is just ‘part of the natural cycle’. To be fair, ice ages are part of the Earth’s normal climate variation – there have in fact been eight Ice Age cycles in the past 750,000 years. The last one ended around 12,000 years ago, and we’ve been enjoying a slightly cosier ‘interglacial’ period since then. On a smaller scale, individual glaciers periodically retreat or advance, depending on the amount of snow that builds up or melts. However — and this is the important part — this is meant to happen slowly. What I saw at Franz Joseph was not slow. A net loss of ice at an unprecedented rate. Kilometres in the space of decades. It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘glacial pace’.  

Unsurprisingly, the glaciers are melting as our climate is warming. Less snow is falling and crystallising each year, and ‘once in a generation’ flash floods are happening more regularly. On a larger scale, between 1961 and 2016, non-polar mountain glaciers lost more than 9000 billion tonnes of ice, and their melt lifted oceans by 27mm

The Big Melt 

Although it’s hard for most people to get emotional about a big chunk of ice, the repercussions of glacial melt have the potential to affect hundreds of millions of people. Although 27mm doesn’t sound like a lot, we should be worried about sea-level rise as it’s an indication of what’s to come. If you fancy a scare, have a play on this flood simulator which will give you an indication of how many coastal cities will be destroyed with only a small rise in sea levels. And the really scary news is that if all land ice melted (including Antarctica), it’s estimated sea levels would rise approximately 70 meters worldwide. 

In addition, glaciers store about 69% of the world’s freshwater. Himalayan glaciers supply a considerable amount of drinking water that feeds into rivers in China, India and other parts of Asia. In some places, they’re used for irrigation and even generating hydroelectric power. There are some pretty serious concerns about water availability should these natural stores be depleted.


The U-shaped valley left behind by the retreating Franz Joseph Glacier

Tourism is also being affected. New Zealand has seen a rising number of geotourists despite its shrinking glaciers. Over 750,000 visited Franz Joseph over a 12 month period. But as I witnessed, the viewing points are getting further from the snouts as parts of the glacier carve off. This is mainly to keep people safe, as the edges are becoming more unpredictable. As a result, tourism operators are opting to fly people in aircraft – ironic given the CO2 threat that is destroying them.  

recent study of tourists visiting nearby Mount Cook and its glaciers by the University of Canterbury revealed that only half of them said learning about climate change was an important part of their trip, although 70% expected the glacier to retreat in the future. Glaciologist Dr Heather Purdie, who worked on the study, sees tourism as a good opportunity to get the climate change message across: “Wouldn’t it be great if, after coming to see and experience glacier change, visitors felt inspired to make changes to their own personal lifestyles that will benefit the environment.”

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) is taking active steps to protect the country’s ecosystems (some steps are somewhat contentious, for example, poisoning predators). At the same time, it has put up signs in national parks to remind visitors of how the landscape is being affected by climate change.

Some of the signs also gave the Māori story behind the landscape. The Māori associate natural features in the landscape with ancestors or their actions, creating an inseparable tie between the natural and human world. Fox Glacier, for example, is said to be the bed of the legendary figure Tuawe.

Personally, I’ve always felt more emotionally attached to the living creatures that are struggling through this climate catastrophe. But seeing majestic glaciers reduced to gravelly sludge really hit home. Glaciers and the rising number of geotourists visiting them provide an excellent opportunity to remind people of our connection to the landscape and drum up a bit of sentimentality. Perhaps then we can encourage more visitors to push for wider change to rescue what’s left of these Ice Age relics.


New Zealand is a long way from most places, so you’re bound to create a bit of a carbon footprint with your flight! Air New Zealand works with ClimateCare to provide transparent carbon offsetting programmes. You can also do this independently through emission calculators like myclimate.org


Campervanning is the most cost-effective way to make your way around New Zealand. I went with Spaceship Rental’s ‘Rocket’ option as it offered the best deal, but there are lots of other options. 


You need to pay a small fee to park up at most campsites overnight. I opted to stay in DOC campsites as opposed to private ones as the money goes back into maintaining the national parks. 

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Singaporean-based Brit Hannah has lived in Asia for four years and works in marketing and communications. She's passionate about sustainability, particularly the new models and technological innovations that are driving change. She spends her time exploring the region and learning more about the environmental issues affecting people on the ground.