An article published in Stuff earlier this month identified Franz Josef and Fox glaciers as ‘Rock Stars among glaciologists’.
Of course we’ve always thought Franz Josef Glacier to be New Zealand’s most spectacular, but it’s interesting to know that it’s a favourite not only for visitors but also for the glaciologists studying these impressive giants world-wide.
There’s a number of elements that contribute to Franz Josef’s rock star status; the first of these being its accessibility. Franz Josef Glacier has the lowest terminal face elevation of any alpine glacier in the world.
Despite no longer being able to hike up the terminal face on foot, both the public (via commercial guiding operations) and scientists can still easily access the glacier by helicopter; it’s just a short ride from Franz Josef township.
In addition to easy access, Franz Josef Glacier is also steep, descending from 2,700m above sea level high in the Southern Alps, to 240m above sea level within the rainforest. In particular the steep lower section of the glacier makes it very fast moving (sometimes up to 4 metres per day) and therefore constantly changing.
This creates some ever-changing and spectacular glacier features for us to explore on our trips, and also makes it an insightful indicator for glaciologists.
An interesting and in depth article, written by Vaughan Yarwood for New Zealand Geographic, further supports the view that our West Coast glaciers are incredibly special.
The unique position of Franz Josef Glacier with the majestic alps at its back and a forest-covered terminal moraine in front, makes it “…one of the most finely calibrated places on Earth for studying the effects of climate change. New Zealand is one of the few landmasses in the Southern Ocean, and its warm, wet maritime climate results in a huge amount of snow accumulating on the névé of glaciers such as Franz Josef, and an equally prodigious volume of melt at their termini. Our maritime glaciers are therefore highly sensitive to the subtlest of climatic effects.”
Regardless of whether it's global scientific research or the top of your trael bucket list, Franz Josef is the pick of New Zealand glaciers. Let's face it, who doesn't want to meet a rock star?
Terminal: The lower end of the glacier
Moraine: Accumulation of glacial debris (rock and soil) occurring in both current and formal glacial
Neve: Area high up in the glacier where granular snow accumulates before it's compacted into glacier ice.