Melting Glaciers Threaten Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, captured the world’s attention and made melting glaciers and skinny polar bears the poster child for climate change. On nearly the opposite side of the globe, one of New Zealand’s national treasures has exhibited signs of global climate change for decades but has remained a relatively unknown issue. 

The study, “Implications of a changing alpine environment for geotourism: A case study from Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand,” published in June in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, details the effects of melting glaciers on the landscape of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and examines how this impacts geotourism and visitor experience within the park.

Tourism accounts for a fair share of New Zealand’s economy. According to Dr. Susanne Becken, Investment Advisor at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, tourism makes up 4-5% of the nation’s GDP, and an even greater percentage of its employment. Tourists travel to New Zealand to immerse themselves in nature, and geotourism and ecotourism are popular draws. 

Unfortunately for those who rely on tourism, Dr. Becken believes the industry has seen its heyday. Climate change threatens New Zealand’s natural environment, affecting Kiwis and tourists alike. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park contains some of the largest glaciers and highest mountain peaks in New Zealand and is a destination for local and international hikers, climbers, skiers and more. However, these glaciers are shrinking rapidly.

Sunrise in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (Source: Flickr/Bernard Spragg)

Thinning and receding glaciers have made hiking more dangerous within the park. Guided hikes of the Tasman Glacier were a popular tourist attraction in the 1900s, but thinning ice temporarily halted tours as early as the 1950’s. In the last 40-50 years, glacier recession in Aoraki/Mount Cook has also led to the development of proglacial lakes. These lakes result from receding glaciers, as their meltwater fills the landforms left by the glaciers. Today, boat tours on the proglacial lakes have emerged as a new sight-seeing opportunity. Thus, glacier retreat has presented a mixed-bag, resulting in increased dangers for hikers and skiers, but also providing alternative tourist opportunities. 

A boat tour on Tasman Lake, a proglacial lake formed by the receding Tasman Glacier (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Avenue)

Another response to glacier retreat in Aoraki/Mount Cook has been the increased use of airplanes and helicopters to access glaciers and mountains in the park. Helicopters and planes with retractable skis have allowed glacier tours to continue and are a safer way for hikers, climbers, and hunters to access the mountains. Although it may seem like a drop in the bucket in terms of emissions, increased aircraft usage within the park does not correlate with environmentally conscious practices. In terms of visitor experience, increased aircraft usage was found to be unpopular with other visitors to the park. The study determined that 26% of visitors who walked or hiked in the park were displeased by the aircraft activity above. 

In addition to the challenges presented by receding glaciers, Dr. Heather Purdie, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, and lead author of this study, says increased number of visitors to the park stretches resources and infrastructure thin, making sustainability an even greater challenge. Dr. Becken confirmed that just this year, the park reached a record number of tourists at 1,000,000 visitors. For this reason, balancing environmental sustainability and visitor numbers is an increasingly difficult but essential task. As Dr. Purdie said, “People come from all around the world to enjoy our beautiful landscape. If we go down the path of overcrowding as seen in many other iconic tourist destinations, then not only will our environment suffer but we will lose the fundamental attraction.” 

Aerial photograph of Tasman Glacier/Mount Cook, taken from a helicopter (Source: Flickr/Ewan MacPhillimy)

Researchers used a mixed-methods approach of visitor surveys and interviews with relevant sources to determine the results of the study. According to Dr. Purdie, the results of the study helped researchers “understand how observed changes in the physical world is actually experienced by people.” Unfortunately, the results determined that most visitors were largely unaffected by glacier retreat. Of those surveyed, 56% of visitors were satisfied with their experience in the park.

Visitor experience may in part be owed to Aoraki mountain, which is the main draw for tourists. Key sources interviewed in Dr. Purdie’s study also acknowledged that most visitors are visiting the park for the first time and may not recognize the significance of glacier retreat. The sources interviewed for the study were composed of park managers, scientists, tour operators, and professional and recreational alpinists. The mountains and glaciers within Aoraki/Mount Cook have sentimental value for many interviewees. Those interviewed provided crucial insight as they continually visited the park and watched the landscape change over time. These key sources expressed fear of further physical changes to the park from both environmental and economic perspectives. One interviewee remembered visiting the park decades before bringing their children and noted how drastically the park had changed between visits. 

Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand mountaineer, in Aoraki/Mount Cook (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Jonathan Keelty)

Climate change has left its mark on Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, visible in the receding glaciers and growing proglacial lakes. Researchers involved in the study are hopeful that geotourism can promote sustainability among visitors to New Zealand and lead discussions of climate-related issues. Dr. Purdie emphasized this, saying, “Quality geotourism can be an important tool to teach people about our wonderful environment.” She stressed that “trying to find a balance between tourism and environmental sustainability,” must be a priority moving forward. In the meantime, she and fellow researchers are “keen to highlight the issue to hopefully stimulate some thinking around this issue.” Dr. Purdie and her fellow authors have conducted research in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park for years. They have watched the changes to the mountains and glaciers in the park unfold and plan to continue to monitor glacier and environmental changes within the park. 

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