Walking around the car park at the base of the Fox Glacier terminal, the ground bounces beneath one’s foot, evidence of the melting glacier that lies underneath the gravel. Sarah Nicol-Bergeron, a guide at Fox Glacier Guiding, calls in over the radio to report that the ground has sunk and formed a large hole at the terminal base. The voice on the other end responds to the report, saying they will send someone out to look at it as soon as possible. This is just one of the many things that guides deal with on a daily basis as they lead groups up to the terminal of the glacier.
Nestled in the mountains of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Fox Glacier is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. The trail up to the terminal is open to the public, but those looking to learn more about the glacier can partake in a guided hike with Fox Glacier Guiding, a company that also offers excursions on the glacier itself.
Walking on Rock and Ice
The changing form of the Fox Glacier terminal trail traces the changes in the glacier itself
At the start of the hike, groups can’t stop for pictures because it is in a rock fall area. Though large rock falls only occur every few months, they can pose a significant danger to hikers, so the Department of Conservation has begun to build barrier walls to stop large rocks before they can reach the trail. While there is risk of a large rock fall, Nicol-Bergeron said hikers don’t need to worry too much about being harmed.
“Most rocks that are going to fall are going to start about half way up, fall about three quarters of the way down, then stop there,” she said.
The Township of Fox Glacier, which supports the tourists who come to see the area, has several cafés where people can eat before or after their visit.
Café Neve, located across the street from the guide's building, is an easy option to get breakfast and a coffee before hiking the glacier terminal.
The hike once followed a path along the side of the mountain until a large rainfall washed so many rocks down the side of the mountain that the river was pushed to the far side of the valley. As a result, the early part of the trail runs right through the center of the valley.
On the drive to the glacier terminal, there is a sign that shows where the glacier was in 1750, when it was approximately 16 kilometers (10 miles) long. Since then the glacier has receded to about 12.5 kilometers (7.7 miles) though there was a period of advancement between 2004 and 2008.
Between the marker on the road and the base of the glacier, the vegetation changes drastically, providing a natural timeline of glacial recession. Nicol-Bergeron said this vegetation signals how recently the glacier reached a certain point, explaining how the smaller foliage begins to grow about five years after the glacier has receded from an area. After about 10 years, lichen and moss form and larger vegetation appears after 15 to 20 years.
“Over the last three years we have lost about 500 meters (1640 feet),” Nicol-Bergeron said. “It has been very stable since then. It’s very normal. We’re not in an ice age so it’s natural that the glacier is retreating.”
She adds that with the current state of carbon emissions, the glacier may be completely gone in 100 years. A significant increase in carbon emissions could cause it to disappear in as little as 80 years.
While the Fox Glacier won’t be around forever, it continues to be a major landmark in New Zealand and a great attraction to tourists around the world.