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.
Vanishing glaciers have been a topic of discussion for quite some time. One effective way of communicating this serious issue is through photographs, which may better represent the implications behind scientific figures and graphs.
Michael Kienitz, a photojournalist based in Wisconsin, is sharing his experience with vanishing glaciers in an exhibition coming September 13th to the Chazen Art Museum at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This exhibition, entitled “Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty,” is a culmination of Kienitz’s five-year work collecting images from southeast Iceland and captures some of the ice caves and glacial formations in the region’s glacial tongues.
Kienitz started his formal training in photography in college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has been a photographer ever since, for over 40 years. As a college student, he witnessed firsthand how the local media failed to portray the full picture of the Vietnam peace protests on campus. This motivated him to start documenting the scene with his own camera. Thus began a professional career as a war photographer. His award-winning photography has been featured in various publications including Life, Time, and Newsweek.
While Kienitz’s works have been recognized for their various themes, he says his life-long pursuit focuses on one specific topic: Icelandic glaciers, the subject of the exhibition. The glaciers of Iceland cover approximately 11 percent of the country’s landscape, with a total area of 100,000 km2. These are temperate and low-altitude glaciers, meaning they retreat dramatically with temperature increase, unlike high altitude polar glaciers. In 2014, for example, Okjökull, a glacier in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, lost too much of its mass to be considered a glacier, no longer capable of moving under its own weight.
After spending time in southeast Iceland, Kienitz witnessed the retreat of Icelandic glaciers. In the following interview, he explains the process of documenting the photos and videos for his upcoming exhibition.
GlacierHub:Is it difficult to photograph in settings like Iceland?
Michael Kienitz: Having endured winters in Wisconsin, I was able to adapt quite easily to the moderate winters in the southeast Coast of Iceland. I did most of my work then because the ice is the most blue at that time of year, and there are fewer tourists. I’ve been fortunate enough the last two years to have been able to stay in a house along the the sea just 15 minutes from Jokulsarlon, which is owned by the Iceland Writers Union. While doing my work, I’ve also produced videos and photography for local guides and a local museum. I’ve also been fortunate to have met and climbed the glaciers with some of Iceland’s best guides who have shown me places only few people have ever been to. I was a war photographer for ten years, so I’m quite used to difficult environments.
GH: What are the opportunities and challenges of using drones to photograph glaciers?
MK: I was one of the first photographers to fly drones in Iceland for photography and video. When I started going there five years ago, almost no one had ever seen a drone, much less flown one. Drones are perfect tools to immerse the viewer into the Icelandic landscape from unique perspectives. They also allow us to take photographs and videos of landscapes that are dangerous to be documenting on site. In the beginning I had to carry around fairly large drones, but the technology has improved immensely, and I can now easily carry my camera gear as well as a drone and several batteries.
For my upcoming exhibition at the Chazen Art Museum, I will be using drone footage to show wide dramatic shots of the terrain, so that the viewer can more easily understand the context of the ice caves and glacial tongues which will also appear in my still images.
Drones are now much more highly regulated in Iceland, and to fly in the national parks you must have a permit. I was fortunate to have been given a two month permit this year to fly drones in the national parks. I plan on giving some of my works to the national park of Iceland for their courtesy.
GH: What do you like best about Iceland, and what surprised you most?
MK: Iceland, particularly where I went to take pictures of the glaciers, is pristine, but also visually dynamic, as it continually changes. A lot of the glaciers that I take photographs of can dramatically change in weeks and sometimes vanish completely in months. One of the most surprising things I’ve experienced is the incredible changes due to the rising sea-level and increasing temperatures in southeast Iceland, particularly in the Jokulsarlon area of Vatnajokull National Park.
GH: What is your next idea for photography?
MK: My work in Iceland may be a lifelong pursuit. Some models indicate that Iceland will no longer have glaciers in 2080. I’m documenting the astounding beauty of them and their anatomy like ice caves while they still exist, and printing them on archival aluminum, so that future generations can see for themselves the majesty of glaciers and the timeline of its continual changes and disappearance. For example, an extremely deep ice cave, which went from a beautiful ice arch to nothing but stones and gravels over a period of 18 months.
As their name suggests, ice caves are tunnel-like features that occur within ice bodies, usually glaciers. They have been known to science at least since 1900, when the American explorer and scientist Edwin Balch described them in his book Glacières or Freezing Caverns. In recent decades, some ice caves have become major tourist attractions.
Ice caves are formed by the horizontal movement of liquid water through glaciers. This movement causes some of the ice to melt. In some cases, the liquid water is produced by melting on the glacier surface; it then descends through a vertical tunnel or moulin to the glacier bed, where it flows out and emerges at the glacier snout. In other cases, geothermal activity provides the heat to melt the ice. Caves can also form on glaciers that terminate in lakes or the ocean; melting at the front of the glacier can proceed under the glacier, sometimes for considerable distances.
Ice caves attract tourists in a number of countries. Norway and Iceland are major destinations for people who wish the visit them, but they are found in other countries as well, including Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand. The nature photographer Kamil Tamiola entered an ice cave on the north face of an Alpine summit in France at 3,800 meters above sea level. “You need to stay focused, pay attention to every single move and commit yourself entirely to this climb,” he said. He used mountaineering gear, including ice axes and crampons.
Less equipment is needed to enter the ice caves of Lake Superior, which form each winter from seeps in a limestone cave rather than from melting within a glacier. Tourists wear warm clothing and boots, and bring only trekking poles for balance. “It’s just fantastic, ” said Jim McLaughlin, who visited them in 2014. “It’s unique to see water in so many different forms and different colors and the way it’s sculpted.” McLaughlin and the others
In all these countries, the best time to visit ice caves is during the winter. There is a greater risk of collapse from melting at other seasons. Tourists have to bring appropriate gear to enter an ice cave. Helmets, gloves, sturdy boots, and warm layered clothing are often required. Headlamps and kneepads are highly recommended.