By the end of this century, tourism on the moon may be possible, but glacier tourism in New Zealand may be a thing of the past.

On a bright blue day in early March – those few weeks ago when the world, or at least New Zealand, still had a semblance of normalcy – I woke up and gazed out the window from my lodgings in Franz Josef/Waiau, a small farming and tourist town on the remote West Coast of the country’s South Island. Daybreak provided the first real glimpse of my subtropical surroundings. I had arrived in the middle of a rainstorm the night before after barreling up through the rainforest, left-side drive, along the coastline of the Tasman Sea. At Bruce Bay, I pulled over for a quick swim, soaking in the tangerine sun as it set into the coral pink waves before the clouds rolled in.

Sunset over the Tasman Sea. Bruce Bay, New Zealand.

The inclement weather passed overnight, and as I sipped my morning coffee from the deck, I felt like I was in Hawai’i. A thicket of dewy trees surrounded our chalet, and mountains rose up in the distance behind the cow-studded fields. But unlike on a tropical island, glaciers sat atop the steep peaks of sandstone and mudstone (known to geologists as “greywacke”). The sun was rising quickly now, and it looked like it was going to be a glorious day. I jumped into my little blue Mazda 2 rental for a quick drive into town to get a closer view of the ice, a feature that has inexplicably intrigued me for most of my life whether in the form of ice cream or glaciers.

Landsat imagery of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers from 2003.

In molecular terms, the ice in New Zealand is just like the ice in the Arctic. Frozen water is frozen water, whether on the South Island or Pluto. Yet the glaciers in New Zealand looked and felt different than the ones I had encountered in Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska. With an average slope of 35 degrees, the mountains here drop precipitously down to the ocean. The glaciers cover them in steep, Kryptonite-like sheets ending in vertical faces so sheer that falling ice blocks have killed unsuspecting hikers who walked past warning signs. Tectonic activity is pushing up the mountain range, known as the Southern Alps, more rapidly than anywhere else on Earth.

In contrast to the glaciers of Iceland or Svalbard, which slide smoothly out to the sea, in New Zealand, the glaciers looked like giant icefalls cascading down rocky chutes hemmed in by chartreuse shrubs. At the bottom, the ice tongues terminate in the delightfully named podocarp rainforest, which is comprised of trees, ferns, tree-ferns, and yet more shrubs. The origins of podocarp rainforests stretch back 300 million years to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland, making New Zealand really feel like The Land Before Time (for all the dinosaur-obsessed 90’s kids out there like myself).

Hiking on Fox Glacier, New Zealand.

Heli-hiking on Fox Glacier

My friends and I joined a glacier helicopter hiking tour (a “heli-hike”) out of the town of Fox Glacier, just a thirty minute drive south of Franz Josef. Fox Glacier Tours brought us soaring into the skies for an exhilarating five-minute helicopter tour that landed directly on the glacier. Under cerulean skies, for the next three hours, we hiked up and down the white and blue ice with crampons and poles. Huge waterfalls showered down onto both sides of the rock walls encasing the glacier. Looking up, I could see the jagged white crest of the snowfield atop of the glacier punch the sky. And looking down, I could see the gritty valley floor, carved out by the retreating glacier over thousands of years, stretching all the way out to the patches of fertile farmland abutting the turquoise Tasman Sea.

Our trusty Fox Glacier Guides helicopter pilot.

The Maori have their own name for Fox Glacier. They call it Te Moeka o Tuawe (“Bed of Tuawe”), after Tuawe, a man who, according to Maori legend, was swept away to his death by an avalanche while climbing on the ice with his paramour, a skilled female climber. It’s unknown how high the Maori traditionally ventured up onto the glaciers, but, as The Encyclopedia of New Zealand details, their language has several words for them. This frigid vocabulary is pretty neat considering the fact that the sea-faring Maori originally sailed on their waka (canoes) to Aotearoa (New Zealand) from tropical Polynesia.

  • whenuahuka: permanent snow atop the peaks
  • hukapapa: great snowfields
  • hukapo: glaciers
  • waiparahoaka: glacial sediment
  • waihuka: snow water that rushes from glacial sediment

Upon Tuawe’s death, his crestfallen lover, Hinehukatere, cried a river of tears that formed the glacier known as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (“Tears of Hine Hukatere”) just to the north. When the German explorer Julian von Haast came along in the 1865, he decided to name it after the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef, continuing the time-honored tradition of Europeans naming random features tens of thousands of miles from home after their overlords.

Von Haast wasn’t the first European to sight these glaciers, however. Most likely, British Member of Parliament Leonard Harper and his companion, Edwin Fox, were the first Westerners to see them thanks to their Maori guides. Remarkably, their glacier expeditions did not take place until over two hundred years after the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand in 1642. That year, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed from the Dutch colonial city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in search of a southern maritime route to Chile, where Spanish ships could then be attacked. He made it as far as New Zealand’s South Island before Maori attacked his crew on their waka, forcing his two ships to turn back to Indonesia.

Dutch adventurism in Svalbard, Greenland, and New Zealand

1642 was a seminal year not only in the history of European exploration in the southern hemisphere, but also in the northern hemisphere. As Europeans established and exploited their colonies in Asia, they sought a shortcut via the Arctic to cut down the months-long journey between the two continents. The same year as Tasman reached New Zealand, a Dutch company that had been searching for the Northwest Passage went bust after nearly three decades of operations.

The Noordsche Compagnie (North Company) was one of the many (in)famous Dutch transnational companies, like the Dutch East India company. Rather than Asian spices, however, the North Company’s specialty was Arctic whales. The States General of the Netherlands (the Dutch legislature) granted the company a monopoly on whaling in 1617. After hunting cetaceans in the southern Atlantic Ocean proved unprofitable, the company’s whalers turned their sights north, eventually setting up whaling stations on Jan Mayen and Svalbard, where they also hunted polar bears. On a small island off Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, the North Company built a horrifically smelly whale oil processing plant in a town they named Smeerenburg (“Blubber Town”). The Dutch called whale oil “traan,” or tear/tear drop oil, which was corrupted into English as “train oil.” (This phrase will come up again later, in New Zealand, of all places.)

Danish Whaling Station, a painting by Abraham Speeck (1634) of the Dutch installation at Smeerenburg. Rather hilariously, another Dutch painter adapted this painting a few years later, making a Dutch version complete with the country’s tricolor replacing the Danish red and white crosses on all the flags.

The North Company also sent various expeditions to try to find a northwest passage to Asia to provide a shortcut for the Netherlands’ booming spice trade. While no passage would be found for another 300 years, Dutch traders did succeed in starting an annual barter trade with Inuit on Greenland’s west coast. In what Australian archaeologist Alistair Paterson calls an “ice-edge exchange,” the Greenland Inuit traded whale and seal blubber, whale bones, narwhal tusks, and furs for cooking pots, knives, needles, and flintlocks from the Dutch.

Just as motivations to trade and explore pushed the Dutch northwest all the way to Greenland and beyond, those same sentiments pushed them southeast to New Zealand’s icy peaks. Their endeavors were not always successful: in the fateful year of 1642, while Tasman and his crew beat a bloody retreat across the sea now named after him, the North Company ceased to exist. Their monopoly expired and the States General did not renew it, instead opening whaling and fishing to all Dutch citizens. A combination of decreasing numbers of bowhead whales (due to both overhunting and an increase in temperatures, which led the whales to disperse away from Svalbard as they followed the edge of the retreating pack ice), Dutch interlopers, and Danish competition brought the Dutch monopoly to the icy brink.

With whaling subsequently opened to the public, the industry exploded. By the late 17th century, British whaling ships would reach New Zealand, with Maori and European crews pursuing Northern and Southern right whales. Whaling in the Arctic and Southern Oceans was even connected, with ships departing and arriving in New Zealand from Arctic whaling grounds. In a retracing of the ancient journeys made by Polynesian seafarers, they often stopped in Hawai’i en route to Aotearoa (New Zealand). The New Zealand newspaper The Southern Cross reported, for instance:

The barque Robert Towns, returned from a whaling cruise to the Arctic Sea, having been away nearly nine months during which time she has taken 630 barrels oil, and 10,5000lb whale bone. She called at Honolulu and touched at Coral Queen Island on 15th November; left the Bay of Islands on the 30th ultimo.

European experiences and encounters on the fringes of the northern hemisphere also informed their impressions in the south. Captain James Cook, who landed in New Zealand in 1769 and was the first European to lead a circumnavigation of the islands, directly compared Greenlanders and Maori (although he never sailed to Greenland, he used the term “Greenlanders” and “Esquimaux” (Eskimos) interchangeably, having reached Alaska and northwest Canada). Over a century after Tasman’s abortive visit, Cook expressed of the Maori in New Zealand:

“No Greenlander was ever fonder of train-oil than our friends here seemed to be. They relished the very skimmings of the kettle; but a little of the pure stinking oil was a delicious feast.”

Captain James Cook (1769)

Climate change and the future of New Zealand’s glaciers

The Northwest Passage would not be successfully navigated until 1906, when Norwegian Roald Amundsen sailed from Greenland to Alaska. Now, thanks to climate change, voyages through the Northwest Passage are becoming a more regular, if still somewhat unpredictable, affair.

Meanwhile at the bottom of the Earth, climate change is rendering New Zealand’s glaciers into shortened versions of their former selves. The photo of Fox Glacier featured at the top of this post depicts a shrub-covered, camel-hump-like rock in the center of the valley. As late as the 1980s, the glacier’s icy tongue used to extend there. Guides would take tourists on walks up the outcropping to get a view of the glacier, which has since retreated from view over the past decade.

As glaciers melt, they thin out, bringing rocky debris to the surface. The thick coating of rocks and rubbles leads melting to slow down, but it also makes the glacier look “dirty,” much to the chagrin of tourists seeking snow-white ice. The glacier also becomes steeper, requiring helicopters to access the flatter parts located higher up.

Overall, New Zealand’s 3,100 glaciers do not contain a large proportion of the Earth’s cryosphere. Covering some 1,158 km2 (about the size of Los Angeles), New Zealand’s icy crown holds just a mere half a percent of the planet’s freshwater. In contrast, Greenland and Antarctica’s glaciers contain about 37.5% of the world’s freshwater. Even if the country’s 3,100 glaciers melted completely, their disappearance would not contribute significantly to sea level rise.

A hundred years ago, Franz Josef Glacier extended all the way to this viewpoint. Since 2012, the glacier has retreated so much that it is not even possible to hike to it anymore.

Yet the loss of these glaciers would still deal a big blow to New Zealand. By 2100, one model predicts that most of their volume may be lost, much like glaciers at similar, relatively temperate latitudes in Western Canada and the U.S., Central Europe, and the Caucasus.

First, the disappearance of New Zealand’s glaciers will seriously impact the country’s environment, where the icefields and rainforest have formed a tightly intercoupled and unique ecosystem for millennia. Glacier runoff, for instance, delivers micro- and macronutrients to terrestrial and maritime ecosystems. Disruptions to this cycle could prove problematic.

Second, the country’s tourism industry will suffer, too. Currently, 750,000 people visit Fox Glacier each year – a figure that is predicted to double by the end of this decade. As the ice disappears from easy view, New Zealand’s dwindling glaciers face similar problems as the ones I observed in Juneau, Alaska in September 2018, where Mendenhall Glacier is fast receding from the visitor’s center. New and more complicated infrastructure such as roads or even a gondola system, which has been proposed in both Juneau and Franz Josef, will need to be constructed to reach the mouths of the glaciers. Eventually, though, with enough glacial retreat, only helicopters may be able to bring people to their icy edges. But with the skies already abuzz, choppers cannot handle as many tourists as roads or hiking trails (nor can everyone afford the hefty price tag of NZD $499 (~US $300) for a basic heli-hike package). They are also far more carbon intensive.

Franz Josef Glacier by Sir William Fox (1872). Source: National Library of New Zealand.

In 1872, the former prime minister of New Zealand, Sir William Fox, painted a watercolor of Franz Josef Glacier. His rosy view of the frozen river of grieving Hinehukatere’s tears, with two Maori figures in the foreground, is now a distant memory. Between 2008 and 2012, Franz Josef Glacier retreated half a kilometer after having grown 1.5 kilometers over the previous 25 years. By January 2012, it was already no longer possible to walk up onto the glacier: one could only fly.

Fly me to the moon

The night after our heli-hike was astoundingly clear. New Zealand’s West Coast is the only region in the country where the population is falling. As only 444 residents live in Franz Josef, light pollution is low. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way is also brighter than in the Northern Hemisphere. That night, the moon had yet to rise and, unlike in the high latitudes of the Arctic or Antarctic, no aurora obscured the view of the stars. Around 10 pm, the Emu in the Sky – a constellation recognized by Aboriginal Australians in the dark nebulae of the galaxy rather than in the starry bits – began to stretch its long neck above the Southern Alps we’d been tramping around on earlier in the day.

It crossed my mind just how fortunate we were to have a chance to walk on one of New Zealand’s glaciers. which are at least 18,000 years old. First, of course, just a couple of weeks after our hike, the country entered into lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. Approximately 100,000 foreign tourists were still stranded in the country in early April.

Second, given current rates of climatic and technological change, by the end of this century, tourism on the moon may be possible but glacier tourism in New Zealand may be a thing of the past. Rockets and helicopters are good for transporting people to hard-to-reach destinations, but they’re of no use if the thing people want to see has all but disappeared.

The Milky Way with the constellation of the Emu in the Sky, as perceived by Aboriginal Australians, visible seen within the dark nebulae of the galaxy.
Categories: Travel & Photo

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New Zealand’s Southern Alps offer a lush mirror image of the Arctic

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