The Great Glacial Meltdown

If you have ever had the opportunity to travel in New Zealand, chances are high that your itinerary included a visit to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, situated in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the South Island. Often described as one of the most iconic tourism destinations of New Zealand, these glaciers have attracted over half a million international tourists so far, and the numbers are still growing.

Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps © Lorena Singer

I was one of those visitors during Easter Break in 2017, when I decided to make my way across the Southern Alps and down the West Coast to have a look at these renowned landmarks. To be honest with you, I was a bit disappointed at the first sight of the glaciers.


Coming from Switzerland, I grew up just one hour’s drive from the Aletsch Glacier, the largest ice mass in the European Alps. This must have set my bar quite high in terms of what a glacier needs to look like: a massive white wall of eternal ice, carving its way from the Jungfraujoch, known as the Top of Europe, more than 20 kilometres down the valleys of the Bernese mountains.

The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers were nothing like it, covered in debris nearly all the way and not even accessible anymore, due to the strong retreat and countless landslides and rock falls they have experienced in the last years (for a visual reference, click here). However, glacial retreats are not just happening exclusively in New Zealand; sadly, they are reported from all over the world (including from my beloved Aletsch Glacier). With ever increasing temperatures due to climate change, these retreats are expected to progress even more rapidly in the future, leaving an unknown fate for the glaciers and the people who come to see them in many places, such as in Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

Franz Josef Glacier in April 2017. The glacier would have dominated this view 100 years ago © Dominik Schwab

To find out more about how the effects of climate change will influence glacier tourism in the future, Emma Stewart and other researchers from Lincoln University developed an interview protocol and questionnaire addressing both local stakeholders and park visitors of the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier area. The stakeholders, consisting of 13 tourism operators and accommodation or hospitality providers, told the scientists about how they were perceiving the glacial change over time and how important they rated the glaciers as tourist attractions on the West Coast.

The visitors, on the other hand, received a form to fill out which aimed to identify the motivation and expectations of tourists visiting the glaciers as well as documenting their activities and the overall satisfaction of the visit.

With this survey, the research team from Lincoln University gained deep insight on the perception of climate change risk and awareness of impacts in the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier region. When the stakeholders were asked to describe the glacial change over time, all long-time residents agreed on a very rapid scenario.

A comment from one of the DOC rangers pretty much summarizes how they feel about the extent of the shrinkage: ’I would feel much better if the glaciers were coming forward, …, whereas now it [the glacier] is just a dirty old strip of ice around the corner.‘
And it is literally around the corner, as the glaciers have retreated so much, that today one needs to walk nearly one kilometre further up the valley to get a decent view of them, compared to 40 years ago.

Mixed feedback is coming from the park visitors, many of which were traveling to this region for the first time. Half of the respondents expected the glacier to be bigger, nearly half thought it would be cleaner and about a third thought it would be more spectacular. According to a local aircraft operator, commercial activities, such as scenic helicopter flights, always exceed the visitors’ expectations and leave them disembarking the aircraft ’beaming from ear to ear’. The flight alone is a spectacular event for many people, mainly due to the fact that the chopper can take them much further up, where the glacier is still big and clean. Other people (like me), who don’t have the means to undertake such an activity, will naturally be left a bit more disappointed.

Tourists enjoying a helicopter ride on Fox Glacier © Dafna Gilad

According to the questionnaire, the number one reason why people chose to visit the glaciers in Tai Poutini National Park is ‘to see a natural feature that may disappear in the future’. This motivation is referred to as ‘last chance tourism’. It can also be observed with polar bear viewings in the Arctic regions or visits to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

People are striving to visit and observe threatened natural sites before they will disappear forever. This trend has resulted in criticism from environmental scientists, as the stream of thousands of visitors is significantly contributing to global carbon emissions, which often caused the attraction to disappear in the first place. While places like the Tai Poutini National Park might be profiting from the label of ‘last chance’ in the short term, the question arises what will happen to it after the glaciers are gone.

The rapidly changing climate will certainly bring many challenges for the management of protected glacial areas in the future. Both stakeholders and visitors rate the significance of the glaciers to the West Coast region of New Zealand as very high. While their cultural value will always remain, some stakeholders did express concerns about the future of their business. A ranger referred to the ongoing glacial retreats as ‘terrible’ and went on to say that: ‘maybe I am naïve to think that people will still come here without the glacier, maybe they won’t’.

Flexibility and adaptability is going to be essential for the West Coast tourism industry to survive and operators are looking for new activities to be introduced to the market. However, what exactly those new activities are and how they will be implemented is not clear yet. One thing is certain though, it is crucial for local stakeholders, policy makers and scientists to work together and find solutions for the persistence of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers as tourist icons of New Zealand.

The author Lorena Singer is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught jointly at Lincoln University and University of Göttingen. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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