New Zealand’s glaciers are melting
New Zealand is well known for its wondrous scenery. Among the country's top tourist attractions are two glaciers. They are both stunning and unusual. The glaciers snake down from the mountains to a temperate rain forest. It's made them easy for people to walk up to and view.
But the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers have been melting at a rapid rate. Now it has become too dangerous for tourists to hike onto them from the valley floor. It's ended a tradition that dates back a century. With continuing warm weather this year, there are no signs of a turnaround. Scientists say it is another example of how global warming is impacting the environment.
Meanwhile, tourism in New Zealand is booming. Nearly 1 million people last year flocked to get a glimpse of the glaciers. In addition, the glaciers have carved out spectacular valleys. But the only way to set foot on them now is to get flown onto them by helicopter.
Tour operators offer flights and guided glacier walks. Logistics limit this to 80,000 tourists per year. It's half the number that once hiked up from the valley floor. About 150,000 people take scenic flights each year. They land briefly at the top of the glaciers.
Flying in the UNESCO World Heritage area comes with its own risks. In November, a sightseeing helicopter crashed onto the Fox Glacier. All seven people aboard died.
Wayne Costello is a district operations manager for the Department of Conservation. He began eight years ago. At the time, the rock he now was perched on now would have been buried under tons of ice. Instead, the glacier now comes to an end a half-mile further up the valley.
"It's wasted away in terms of its thickness," Costello said. "And that's led to quite a rapid melt."
Because of that melt, the valley walls that were once braced by the glaciers have been left exposed. They are vulnerable to rock falls. Hiking up has become too dangerous. Tour operators stopped taking guided hikes onto the Franz Josef in 2012 and the nearby Fox in 2014.
A 2014 paper was published in the journal Global and Planetary Change. The paper concluded that the two glaciers have each melted by 1.9 miles in length. It has melted since the 1800s. Today, the glaciers are about 20 percent shorter. Recently, they have melted at a faster pace than ever previously recorded, the authors said.
Heather Purdie is a scientist at the University of Canterbury. She is the lead author of the paper. She said climate change is the driving factor.
"We know that glaciers around the world, including the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, are responding to that warmer temperature. And they're retreating," she said. Small changes in temperature and snowfall tend to be magnified in the two glaciers. That means their retreat has been interrupted by advances that can last years, she said.
Costello and tour operators are hoping to see another advance soon. But there's no sign of that. February was the second-hottest month ever recorded in New Zealand.
The hot weather has created a new type of tourist attraction. Purdie said the glaciers on the other side of the mountains are also rapidly retreating. Tourists take boat rides on the lakes to see some of the massive icebergs that have begun to shear away.
A helicopter trip onto the Fox Glacier reveals deep crevasses in the translucent blue ice. Stunning ice caves also can be seen. Guides take tourists there. The tourists wear spikes, or crampons, to hold them on the ice.
At the base of the Franz Josef is Dutch tourist Dieuwke Derkse. She said the beauty of the glacier and the purity of the environment overwhelmed her.
She said she felt a little guilty even visiting New Zealand. That is because of the fossil fuels burned by the plane ride there. But she said the glacier also helped inspire her to live in a more environmentally conscious way.
"It makes me a little bit sad. Because you see how fast everything is going," she said.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What impact do the glaciers have on New Zealand’s economy?
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