This week’s Photo Friday features Fox Glacier, one of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers. It is located in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, among the Southern Alps on the South Island.
Fox Glacier begins at an elevation of over 3000 meters, and descends to a final elevation of just 300 meters above sea level. On its journey from the mountains of the Southern Alps into a temperate rainforest climate right on the coast, Fox Glacier stretches a total length of 13.1 kilometers.
Fox Glacier is a temperate maritime, or “warm glacier,” meaning its ice exists at its melting point of 0°C. This, along with the wide snow accumulation area and steep, narrow tongue of Fox Glacier, makes it extremely responsive to small temperature and mass balance changes.
From 1983 to 2008, New Zealand experienced a cluster of cold years, influenced by short-term natural climate variability. Of New Zealand’s 3,000+ glaciers, Fox Glacier was one of 58 that advanced in this time period.
From 2009 to the present, however, Fox Glacier––along with a majority of New Zealand’s glaciers––has entered a period of significant retreat. In 2017, the glacier’s length was the shortest it had ever been in recorded history, and this trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Fox Glacier, along with neighboring Franz Josef Glacier, is one of the world’s most easily accessible glaciers, and is a popular tourist attraction. Both Fox and Franz Josef feature iconic, magnificently sculpted blue ice caves.
As a result of massive retreat in recent years, Fox Glacier now is directly accessible only by helicopter––some 150,000 people a year take these scenic flight tours. On foot, visitors can hike to a scenic overlook, but logistics have limited guided walks to around 80,000 people a year, less than half of what it used to be.
In March 2019, a massive landslide blocked the Fox Glacier access road to both vehicles and pedestrians. In the months following, the small town of Fox Glacier has suffered immensely from the lack of tourism, its primary source of revenue. As of June 21, 2019, access to the road was still closed off.