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On Walkabout On: The Franz Josef Glacier – Part 1

Our next destination during our tour of New Zealand’s South Island was one of the destination I was most looking forward too which is the Franz Josef Glacier:

I have seen glaciers before such as in Washington State and Montana, but only in New Zealand are there glaciers so easily accessible to tourists because they extend down the mountains towards sea level compared to the glaciers in the United States that are high up on mountains. Needless to say I was excited about the location my wife and I were about to see.

After picking up our camp at the local caravan park, my wife and I headed into town to have a look around the Franz Josef Village that is located just a few miles from the glacier itself:

The village is not very big, but has all the necessities a tourist would need such as a great visitor center, gas station, restaurants, grocery store, etc. There are also a number of tour companies that operate out of the village that lead hikes up the glacier as well as helicopter flights. There are even planes that will take you up to the top of the Southern Alps to go skiing. Of course you better have a big wallet to be able to afford such a trip. I was hoping to take a guided hiking tour up the mountain, but since I was still sick from the food poisoning I knew there was no way I would have the energy like I usually do to be able to scale the glacier. That wasn’t going to stop from at least walking to and seeing the face of the glacier though.

The trail head to hike to the glacier is only about a five minute drive outside the village. Since we got an early start on our day, by the time we got to the trail head around 8AM there really wasn’t a whole lot of people visiting the glacier yet that day. From the parking lot you cannot see the glacier and in fact judging by how my wife and I were surrounded by thick forest it was hard to believe there was a glacier here at all:


However, as we proceeded down the trail we did eventually break through the forest and enter into a long wide valley that offered our first spectacular views of this incredible glacier:


Franz Josef Glacier was named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865. The M?ori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere (‘The tears of Hinehukatere’), arising from a local legend: Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Tawe, to climb with her. Tawe was a less experienced climber than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her until an avalanche swept Tawe from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was broken hearted and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.

These tears from Hinehukatere can still be see today in this spectacular glacier:


The scientific explanation however for the making of this glacier is not as romantic as the Maori myth. According to scientists, the glaciers on New Zealand’s Southern Alps is the direct result of high levels of moisture coming off the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand that crash against the island’s giant peaks:


The fact that this moisture is dropped on the west side of the island means that the east side of the South Island actually has a very mild climate compared to the wild weather the western part of the island experiences throughout the year. The heavy snow fall that piles up on these peaks eventually begins to pile up and then gravity takes over and compacts the snow which then becomes so heavy it slides down the mountain in giant ice sheets called glaciers:


As the glacier slides down the side of the mountain it cuts into the sides of the valley it is moving through and carves the rock. All along the sides of the valley where the Franz Josef Glacier is located you can easily see how this glacier has carved the steep walls of this valley:


Even the rocks lying on the ground have evidence of the great ice sheet that once moved across it:


Something else about this glacier that you will not here global warming advocates ever mention is that the glacier has actually been growing since 1970:


I asked one of the tour guides leading hikers up to the glacier why the glacier was growing despite global warming. He told me that whenever Australia goes through a period of hotter weather which Australia currently is, the hotter air over Australia tends to push more moisture across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand thus growing the glacier. When Australia’s temperatures begin to cool more moisture from the Southern Ocean tends to fall on Australia thus leaving less moisture to cross the Tasman and fall on New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

The speed of the melt of Franz Josef Glacier is very evident judging by images in the 1800’s of the glacier actually filling up the entire valley:

These images provide a pretty good time lapse of the retreat of the glacier over the years:


It is believed during the last Ice Age, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago that Franz Josef Glacier actually extended out to the ocean about 19 kilometers away from its current location. Aerial views of the terrain around Franz Josef still shows evidence of the glaciers prior advance with a ridge line of dirt that was pushed outward by the gigantic ice sheet until it started its retreat:


The glacier today is no longer retreating and is currently 12 kilometers long and growing sometimes incredible rate of 70 centimeters per day which is ten times faster then most glaciers:


While the looming glacier my wife and I were hiking towards was impressive, the valley we were crossing was nearly just as impressive:


The valley was extremely wide and its walls were extremely steep with a rushing river tinted gray due to the amount of rock sentiment flowing through it that the glacier had cut off the side of the valleys walls:


Besides the river cutting into the valley, all along the valleys walls, massive waterfalls were flowing down its side causing further erosion as mother nature continues to shape this spectacular valley:


These waterfalls were huge and this image below provides some perspective on how big they are with the tiny man standing at the base of this waterfall:


However as big as the valley was it was hard to keep our eyes off the looming glacier that just continued to grow in size the closer we approached it:


It took about an hour of walking through a forest, then a massive rock field and crossing a river before we reached the base of the glacier, but without a doubt the walk was worth every step to see this incredible glacier.

Next Posting: The Franz Josef Glacier – Part 2

Prior Posting: Dawn at Franz Josef

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