22 March 2022

LESSONS FROM THE BIG BLUE

by Romina Waller

You may not know it, but glaciers are keystones for all life on earth. For the Franz Josef Glacier its hydrologic characteristics is complex and our guides are very skilled in understanding its physical attributes and associated processes. Let us introduce you to our world of ice...

The Franz Josef Glacier is a temperate, maritime glacier on the western flank of the Southern Alps, New Zealand. Extending roughly 9km from an altitude of 2900m to 600m above sea level, the high rates of snow accumulation together with record beating melt rates has resulted in fast response times to small changes in climate of 9 to 20 years.

At the glacier terminus, melt and heavy rainfall occur year round amongst a temperate climate. The reason the glacier can survive in such mild temperatures is due to the westerly prevailing winds that obtain a huge amount of moisture owing to the Tasman Sea. This weather pattern, along with the steep and narrow valleys held amongst the Southern Alps creates the perfect breeding ground for NZ glaciers.

The Franz Josef glacier has an intricate drainage system within the ice that allows melt and precipitation filter through the glacier. It is important to remember that during the current inter-glacial period, it is the natural fate of a glacier to retreat. Glaciers also act as reservoirs of water that persist through summer. Continual melt from glaciers contributes water to the ecosystem throughout dry months, creating year-round stream habitat and a water source for plants and animals. Other benefits of glacial melt include irrigation of crops and helping to generate hydroelectric power.

To wrap up, some glacier facts...

  • Glacial ice covers 10-11 percent of all land.
  • Glaciers store about 69 percent of the world's fresh water.
  • According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center,  if all glaciers melted today, the seas would rise about 230 feet (70 meters).
  • During the last ice age (when glaciers covered more land area than today) the sea level was about 400 feet (122 meters) lower than it is today. At that time, glaciers covered almost one-third of the land.
  • There are over 3000 glaciers in New Zealand
  • Westland Tai Poutini NP holds two thirds of all glaciated terrain in New Zealand

Keen to learn more? Experience a Heli Hike trip and pick the brains of our guides with panoramic views from the high peaks to the ocean. There's nowhere else like it.