Home' Greymouth Star : January 4th 2016 Contents West Coast Feature
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6 - Monday, January 4, 2016
PICTURES: Associate Professor Ian Fuller
I saw some wonderful changes at
Fox and Franz in my 35 years,”
says former chief guide Peter
“But I’ve never seen it so bad.”
Mr McCormack, now in his 90s, was born
and bred and Franz Josef. He started work
as a guide there in 1946.
Nowadays, anyone wanting to walk on the
icehastobeflownontoit — theresultof
seven years of unrelenting retreat.
Mr McCormack saw three advances and
three retreats in his time, but overall both
glaciers lost ice.
He was working at Franz Josef when they
started using helicopters after one recession.
A shelter was named after him, but a good
advance meant it had to be shifted out of
the way of the moving ice.
“At Franz once, the glacier was coming
forward by 5.6 feet a day. In two months, it
came the length of a football field. It was a
magnificent, exciting time.”
Fox Glacier did not advance, or retreat,
quite as strongly as Franz, he said. Fox also
had some big steps, or flat areas, whereas
Franz was steep all the way down. The
guides were always having to cut new tracks,
and keeping access open then, as now, was a
The glaciers always meant a lot to the
guides, he said, just as land matters to a
Mr McCormack, now retired in
Christchurch, was last there 20 years ago,
but he still gets sent photos of the glaciers,
and he finds the current retreat “sad”.
Glacier tourism began in the early days of
the West Coast. As early as the 1880s, steam
ships were run from Hokitika to Okarito so
tourists could visit the glaciers.
People first drawn by gold — including
Mr McCormack’s ancestors — settled in
South Westland and later started tours, as
well as diversifying into sawmilling and
It is rare to find glaciers anywhere in the
world that are so accessible, and so close to
At Franz and Fox, the ice is funnelled
into narrow valleys, making it even more
“The effect is like pressing on a tube of
toothpaste. The ice is pushed right down the
steep valleys to the coast, at speeds of several
metres per day,” New Zealand history
website Te Ara explains.
The fast-moving ice does not melt until it
is near sea level, where there is warmer air
and frequent heavy rain.
Both South Westland glaciers are very
sensitive to variations in climate. Even small
changes in snowfall can result in substantial
changes in the position of the ice terminus.
When first visited by geologist and
explorer Julius von Haast, the front edge of
the Franz Josef Glacier — as he named its
after the Austrian emporer — stood near
Sentinel Rock, several kilometres further
down valley than the ice today.
In 1926, Alec Graham, of Waiho Gorge
(the township, later renamed Franz Josef
Glacier to help with tourism), said the
advance was so strong it was “practically an
ice-wave that is coming down”.
In the mid-1930s the glacier began a rapid
retreat, and a lake formed in front of the
glacier between 1939 and 1949, but rapidly
filled with rock debris.
In 1965, the Greymouth Evening Star
reported: “Franz Josef Glacier now stretches
in a spectacular blanket from the terminal
face to the sea — a distance of 10 miles.”
But the overall trend in recent years is
retreat, although a series of El Nino years,
especially in the late 1970s to early 1980s,
and again in the 1990s, did help replenish
the ice.But there has not been a good year
of snowfall in the glacier-forming neve since
“It ’s never looked so bad as it is at the
moment,” Mr McCormack lamented.
All historic photos courtesy Sir
George Grey Special Collections,
In just 12 months, Fox Glacier has lost 300m of ice and its northern
twin Franz Josef Glacier, 110m. Glaciers naturally advance and retreat,
but for one old South Westland glacier guide, the rapid retreat under
way now is upsetting. LAURA MILLS looks back at the glorious past,
when these rivers of ice stretched almost to the sea.
on thin ice
Franz Josef, 1938, as viewed from the altar window of St James Church.
Ice skating beneath the glacier, 1939.
North Island farmers visit Franz Josef Glacier in 1939.
A picture from the Fox River camp, with the glacier in the background, 1936.
Fox Glacier in the background, 1936.
Franz Josef Glacier
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