Australia is experiencing the worst fire season in modern times. Millions of hectares of forest and thousands of homes have burned and more than 20 people have perished. The environmental impacts are yet to be tabulated, but experts say one billion animals may have died on the continent, which already has the highest extinction rate in the world.
While no glaciers remain on Australia, the impacts of the fires on glaciers more than 1,000 miles away are already being felt. This week’s Video of the Week, showing the impact of Australia’s bushfires on New Zealand’s Tasman Glacier, is one of the most viral glacier videos ever. The footage was viewed 653,000 times on Twitter alone at the time of publication––just one week after it was shared.
Andy Hoare, who has been a guide on the Tasman Glacier for the past three years and who shot the footage on New Year’s Day 2020, said the group have never seen anything like it. “I didn’t expect the smoke to get as bad as it did,” Hoare told GlacierHub. “It felt quite depressing standing there, especially because you can already the massive retreat that our glaciers have already experienced. I think it felt quite symbolic of what’s happening to our environment around the world.”
The 21-second clip shows tourists milling about on the ice. Hoare’s mother, Twitter user @MissRoho, shared the video with the caption “This the view from the top of the Tasman Glacier NZ today––whole South island experiencing bushfire clouds. We can actually smell the burning here in Christchurch. Thinking of you guys.”
The long term impacts of the sooty fallout darkening the surface of New Zealand’s glaciers remains to be seen. But if the Amazon forest fires are any analog, New Zealand’s glaciers can be expected to melt significantly faster. Fires in the Amazon in 2010 caused a 4.5 percent increase in water runoff from Zongo Glacier in Bolivia alone.
Melt rate is critical because where there are glaciers there are people––and biodiversity––reliant upon the slow release of water from glacial reservoirs. Nearly two billion people depend on runoff from Himalayan glaciers in southeast Asia and some towns in Peru receive as much as 85 percent of their drinking water from glaciers during times of drought. Too much melt too fast without replenishment is bad for people, biodiversity, and glaciers.
Hoare did not expect the video to take off the way it did. “I’m glad the footage could at least in a small way make people aware of how the fires affected our glaciers and also maybe think about the connection between the fires, emissions, coal mining, and how it effects the planet.”