For the last 23 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).
What is a Glacier
Glaciers are a popular tourist destination. People travel from all parts of the world to see glaciers and to experience their unique beauty.
A glacier is a large, persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight. Glaciers form where the accumulation of snow and ice exceeds ablation. A glacier usually originates from a cirque landform (alternatively known as a corrie or as a cwm) – a typically armchair-shaped geological feature (such as a depression between mountains enclosed by arêtes) – which collects and compresses through gravity the snow that falls into it. This snow accumulates and the weight of the snow falling above compacts it, forming névé (granular snow). Further crushing of the individual snowflakes and squeezing the air from the snow turns it into “glacial ice”.
Glaciers grow when more snow accumulates than melts. Conversely, they shrink when more snow melts than accumulates. Sometimes weather patterns like El Niño/La Nina can lead to warmer weather, and there’s usually a lag time between the loss and the glacier retreating.
New Zealand’s Disappearing Glaciers
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.
There is Still Time to See the Glaciers of New Zealand
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.
We would love for you to join us in February or March for our one-of-a-kind New Zealand Bike Tour. Spend 11 days on the world’s 12th largest island – the South Island of New Zealand. The difficulty level for this trip is Easy to moderate – 20-45 miles/day, with total mileage of 210-380. Rail trails and road riding, with some optional hills. You don’t have to “keep up” with anyone, cycle at your own pace. Get a lift in the van whenever you like. Enjoy plenty of days off. E-bikes are available (extra charge).Tor request a detailed itinerary or to learn more please visit https://greatbiketours.com/newzealand-2/
Tour Guide and Owner
Great Bike Tours