Higher, faster, shorter

The glaciers of New Zealand are some of the most stunning landscapes you’ll find in the country. But their existence is under threat – from us!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Higher, faster, shorter. The sad new motto of New Zealand’s glaciers. It’s not what we should be aspiring towards. It is the sad not-so-cold reality of climate change.

As you drive along the final road towards Fox Glacier, signs on the side mark the point where the face of the ice was at various points in history. Centuries ago, decades ago.

It has moved a long way in this time – about three kilometres since the 1880s. Some is the natural progression of a flowing river of ice. But recently it’s been accelerating – and it’s got scientists worried.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Even just in the past few years, it’s noticeable how far the face of the glacier has moved.

After driving from the main road, you reach a car park where you leave your vehicle and walk the rest of the way. It is quite a walk these day and takes more than 30 minutes to the point where you get a good view of the glacier’s face.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

It’s one of the few ways to see the glacier. Until the past couple of years, you could do a walking tour onto the ice but that’s now been stopped because it’s too dangerous. The ice is just too thin.

Helicopter tours are now the best way to get a good view.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand
Fox Glacier, New Zealand

For visitors to this glacier region of New Zealand, on the west coast of the South Island, there are a few must-sees.

Only a 30 minute drive from Fox Glacier is Franz Josef Glacier and it really is worth seeing them both.

Both are rivers of ice, fair enough, but the valleys you walk along to reach the glaciers are different and have their own unique characteristics.

While the Fox Glacier valley has mainly grey rocks and a rounder shape, the Franz Josef Glacier valley is full of orange rocks, has more plants, and is steeper on the sides.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier is also receding – all of the glaciers here in New Zealand are. Some of it is natural and these ice formations always grow and shrink a bit over time depending on the weather conditions of each year.

But the acceleration of the decline in size is increasing and scientists don’t think it has ever been as fast as it has been in recently. They’re convinced that human-caused climate change is the major cause.

Since 1977, the Southern Alps of New Zealand have lost 34 per cent of their ice and snow cover. The smallest glaciers have lost about 12 metres of thickness in that time.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

The walk from the carpark to the face of the Franz Josef Glacier is beautiful – but quite long. It can take almost an hour if you take your time and enjoy the surroundings.

It helps that the route has so much to look at but it’s a stark reminder that since 2008 this glacier has been in a period of retreat and has lost around 800 metres of length.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

It gives you time to think about it, if you let yourself. And it is probably important that we do think about this kind of thing.

We hear a lot about climate change in the news. Most of us believe that it is caused (or at least amplified) by human behaviour.

We know it will change our planet, sea levels will rise, agriculture will be affected, species may be wiped out, and there will be an imbalance in nature that could have many more unpredictable effects.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

But it is all happening so slowly and sometimes it is hard to picture, to get a mental image of what climate change. Well, here in this part of New Zealand, you don’t need a mental image. You have a physical one in front of you.

All you need to do is visit Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier again within a year or two and you’ll see the difference. The planet warms, the glaciers shrink. It’s that simple!

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

It is still worth the visit these days, even if you can no longer walk up on the ice.

Helicopter rides are expensive so, if that’s not within your budget, you can walk up both valleys and see the face for free. Or there are some tours that take you much closer to the glaciers themselves on foot.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Maybe this will be the kind of place we can only tell future generations about, showing them photos and explaining how the natural world looked before the temperature rose too much.

If that is the case – and there’s a strong likelihood it will be – that’s really sad. Maybe even more reason to go and see this region for yourself now.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

7 thoughts on “Higher, faster, shorter”

  1. I visited Franz Josef a few weeks ago & found it breathtaking. I did wonder how much longer the glaciers will be around. While the helicopters may be the best way to see them up close, I’m personally not a fan. I believe that travelers should minimize their negative impact on others, and I found that the presence of helicopters in the valley detracted from the quiet of the experience for everyone else.

    • Yeah, I wish there were more opportunities to see the glaciers close up without needing a helicopter. Although there may come a time when there is not much to see at all. Interestingto hear your experience – thanks for stopping by!

  2. I and my climbing partner spent a month on the Fox back in the fifties then walked down the glacier to the coast,Even then the glaciers had retreated as I remember there was another hut isolated high up on the south side of the valley . Built early in the century , the ice surface had dropped so far that it was now unreachable.


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