NZ Glaciers – the scale of retreat

Haupapa / Tasman Glacier. Photo: Jessie Bard

 Every year, scientists in Aotearoa fly over some of the country’s most remarkable glaciers that descend from the Southern Alps. Known as ancient ice ”rivers,” these iconic glaciers are swiftly shrinking every year. For New Zealand’s end-of-summer annual snowline survey, a team of scientists spent eight hours flying over peaks in the Southern Alps. The 2023 survey was the 46th undertaken in a collaboration between the Department of Conservation, NIWA, and Victoria University of Wellington. The long-established project captures aerial portraits of over 50 Southern Alps glaciers around a similar time each year, tracking their change. The team took thousands of photographs of glaciers of differing sizes and orientations. These photographs are used in multiple national and international research projects, including one that builds 3D models to compare snow and ice year to year. Dr Andrew Torrey, NIWA principal Scientist, coordinates the survey. Despite variability in the health of Aotearoa’s glaciers, Lorrey highlights that the trend of ice loss from previous years continues;

 “We’ve already had to abandon some of the index glaciers that we used to monitor because their snowlines and meaningful ice volume have completely disappeared. If current trends continue, we will see further contraction of snow and ice to only the highest places, leaving very little across the Southern Alps.”

2022 was New Zealand’s hottest year ever, beating a record that was set just the year before. Two years of severe record-breaking heat are taking a critical toll on the country’s glaciers. Lorrey, who has been on these yearly surveys since 2009, is notably more concerned than in previous years; 

“This trend is worrisome – not only do we risk losing the glaciers and our intimate relationship with them completely, but it will also affect the livelihoods of people who rely on these natural wonders for tourism, as well as flow on effects from decreased meltwater during periods of drought.” 

Globally, glaciers are freshwater sources for nearly 2 billion people. Their rapid melting contributes to decreased water resources during droughts and poses a critical risk for deadly flash flooding and the driving of sea level rise. Glaciers around the world can range from ice that is several hundred to several thousand years old, providing a scientific record of climate changes over time. Glaciers serve as a highly visual element of environmental change, warning us of the rapid warming of our climate. Witnessing melting glaciers firsthand alerts scientists to the extensive change that can sometimes be invisible to the human eye. 

Snow provides a protective and nourishing layer for the glaciers, serving as a buffer against warmer periods ahead. When the melt season starts in the spring, the snow melts first before it reaches the body of the glacier. This year’s low snowfall accumulation has significantly altered the Southern Alps, with snow lines rising and ice loss accelerating rapidly. Small low elevation glaciers have largely disappeared and iconic glaciers such as Fox and Franz Josef have retreated markedly. The less snow there is, the more these glaciers are exposed to melting conditions. It is mostly temperature change that drives glacier loss in New Zealand, says glaciologist Lauren Vargo from Victoria University of Wellington. As current global warming trends continue, we will keep losing glaciers. Even if ambitious climate targets are met, up to half of the world’s glaciers could completely disappear by the end of the century

The loss of ice is personally felt by New Zealanders who connect to the glaciers on a metaphysical level, like Dr. Lorrey; “I’m seeing this beautiful part of our natural environment slipping through our fingers. And if you’ve experienced a glacier firsthand, they are absolutely breathtaking and mind-blowing and life-altering.”

 Professor Andrew Mackintosh from Monash University says “the scale of retreat is confronting, even to a glaciologist. It emphasizes the urgency of slowing climate change because the impacts are going to become increasingly costly and hard to avoid.” 

The Southern Alps are held together by glaciers. Photo: Jessie Bard

As snow lines rise and winter gets warmer and shorter, the impacts of climate change on our mountains, glaciers, rivers, and trails are becoming irreversible. As outdoor enthusiasts and advocates, knowing what you can do to help protect these spaces is vital. This month’s advocacy conversation focuses on divestment from fossil fuel companies. Protect Our Winters NZ just launched our campaign #DivestTheDirt. Your bank is most likely investing in fossil fuels and funding the climate crisis. Is your bank contributing to climate change by funding fossil fuel projects? Check out this table prepared by our friends at 350 Aotearoa. Your money can move mountains. Use tools we provide on our #Divest The Dirt Page to email your bank and ask what they are doing with your money. Then head to Mindful Money to see what your Kiwisavers might be funding.

#DivestTheDirt may seem like a minor component in reducing the global scale of glacier melt, but it is a critical way to do your part and ensure your money is not supporting fossil fuels and the continued decline of glaciers and other natural wonders. Fund the protection of snow and glaciers by putting your money in banks that support renewables and sustainable investments. #DivestToProtect