Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Fox Glacier, New Zealand
Visited: March 2019
New Zealand is home to over 3,000 glaciers, most of which are located on the South Island near the Southern Alps. The two most visited are Fox Glacier and Franz-Josef Glacier, both of which are located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
Joining the hoards of tourists that hike to the glaciers each year was high on our list of things to do while in New Zealand. Unfortunately, Cyclone Trevor tore through the west coast the day we were supposed to arrive; bringing with it rains that flooded homes, destroyed roads and wiped out the Waiho bridge, which connects the roads between the two glaciers. It has been heart breaking to see the community assess the damages. We are thankful to locals who suggested we hunker down and wait out the storm before pushing on to the glaciers as we would have been among those stranded on the Franz-Josef side.
A helicopter lands on the recently established helipad.
With the Waiho bridge gone, we couldn’t get anywhere near the Franz-Josef Glacier, and all of the major hiking trails around Fox Glacier were closed. The only way to access Fox Glacier was by helicopter. A Heli Hike tour is not typically an activity for those traveling on a budget. However, we had hiked our way around the island for free, and saved a bundle sleeping and preparing our own meals in our Escape Campervan, so we were actually ahead of budget. Besides, we have always wanted to ride in a helicopter, so combining the helicopter and glacier hike seemed like a practical decision in our minds (bucket list – check!).
We were not at all disappointed by the helicopter ride, which really made me want to go on an even longer helicopter ride next time. It’s a pretty incredible way to view the world below and landing on a glacier didn’t suck either.
We were told the hike was moderately difficult, but it seemed to accommodate a pretty wide range of athleticism and ability. Recent storms had wiped out the original helipad and much of the regular trail, so our guides had to hack out a great deal of the path for us. Chopping ice with axes takes a minute, so this may be why we were moving slower than I had anticipated.
Our guide told us that about 65% of the heli hike tours are canceled each year due to weather, which makes sense considering glaciers are made of snow. It is the weight of new fallen snow that compresses old snow into glacier ice at the névé at the top of the glacier. The size of the glacier is determined by how far gravity can move this glacial ice down the mountain before it reaches an altitude warm enough to melt it. Fox Glacier currently gets 10-20 meters of snow per year; this is not a small amount, but it is quite a drop from the 40-80 meters that has traditionally fallen here.
Glaciers - beautiful inside and out.
As the glacier moves down the mountain, rock that has become frozen to it breaks loose and moves with the ice, scraping against other rocks along the way and creating a silt called glacial flour. Gravity carries this glacial flour all the way to the sea with the glacier meltwater. The meltwater is known as glacial milk, due to the milky effect it has on rivers when it flows into them. This milkiness is caused by the glacial flour that is too fine to sink and sits suspended in the water, collecting shorter light waves that change the color of the river water. In fact, New Zealand has become famous for the milky blue glacier runoff that flows through its rivers and lakes.
Once glacial flour reaches the sea it is gradually reincarnated by tectonic plates that sit beneath the ocean. One plate slowly moves under the other to form what is called a subduction zone. In the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where this story began, the Pacific plate is subducted under the Australian plate.
Glacier on the move.
Earthquakes of different levels of intensity occur as tectonic plates shift, and eventually one will push the other up and out of the sea to form a great mountain. As this occurs everything between the ocean floor and the sky rises with the tectonic plates. The entire process takes at least one million years and during that time glacial flour is slowly transformed into sedimentary rock and carried back to the top of the mountain to wait patiently until enough snow falls to break it free for its next journey back to the sea.
A selfie opportunity not even I could pass it up.
Why Glaciers are Important for Human Survival
Glaciers do a lot to help humans. They provide us with fresh water to drink, fertile soil to grow crops, sand and gravel for things like asphalt and concrete, and even electricity. In fact, The Gangotri Glacier runoff is what sources The Ganges, a major resource for the hydroelectric power plants that bring electricity and drinking water to India and Bangladesh.