For the last 16 years I’ve had the privilege of being a bike tour guide in New Zealand. One of the highlight has always been taking part in guided hikes up the valley and onto the Franz Josef Glacier – well, that is no longer possible, thanks to climate change. In fact when we were there in February, it turned out to be the second hottest month ever recorded. Unfortunately the only way to step foot on the glacier these days is via helicopter.
The Franz Josef Glacier has always been a big tourist draw, it part because of its easy accessibility. Of the 360 glaciers that flow throughout the Southern Alps of New Zealand, only two reach the lower rainforest; the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. These are the only glaciers in the world that descend into rainforest, and the only glaciers (at this latitude) that approach so close to the sea. This has made them very accessible to tourists, and in the past it was easy for our cycling guests to stroll up the rainforest valley in their shorts, and hop onto the glacier for a quick walkabout.
Unfortunately the long term changes in climate are playing a big role in the retreat of glaciers. When there is less snow (than average) falling in the glacier névés, the supply of ice being fed to the glacier trunk dwindles and eventually the terminal face will begin to retreat (since the bottom of the glacier will be melting faster than it can be resupplied by fresh ice flowing down the valley).
During the 20th Century glaciers worldwide have been slowly melting and retreating up their valleys. Likewise, the Franz Josef glacier retreated by about 3 km (between 1880s and the 1980s). Then in 1982 a strange thing happened – after a century of retreat, it started to advance again, and for the following 25 years it actually gained 1 km in length (except for a slight retreat from 1999-2005). However since 2008 the glacier has been melting at a faster pace than ever previously recorded – so fast that in a period of just five years it retreated over 1 km up the valley, and now you can no longer take guided walks on the glacier (since 2012) without the aid of a helicopter. It is estimated that the Franz Josef glacier will lose 38 percent of its total mass by 2100.
If there’s any good news, I would say that at least you still have a chance to see the glaciers before they melt away completely. A great way of experiencing the Franz Josef Glacier is indeed to take part in their three-hour “heli hike,” where you take part in a magical guided hike halfway up the glacier (with the aid of a helicopter). I have done this heli hike several times over the years, and it was one of my fondest New Zealand memories.
Tour Guide and Owner
Great Bike Tours