New Zealand – Glaciers of the West Coast

On our tour of New Zealand’s South Island, we traveled across the Southern Alps and down the west coast. On the morning of November 24 we ate breakfast full of anticipation. We were to see the glaciers that day!

We were about to get a taste up close of how dynamic and powerful our natural systems are. Over the course of a day, clouds come and go and change their shapes. Rain or snow falls one day and it’s bright and sunny the next. Sunrise silhouettes the mountains to the east with its rosy glow which turns to bright day. Sunset brings changing colors of deep red and gold. Seasons come and go. Over many decades, plant communities change their patterns and composition as open meadows transition  to forest. Solid rock weathers and soil collects in hollows, giving footing to small plants which spread and are gradually replaced by shrubs, then trees.

Over tens of thousands of years climate changes, glaciers grow, sculpt the mountains and melt back. On the scale of millions and hundreds of millions of years mountain ranges rise and are worn down. New rock is formed to later become mountain slopes covered with forest and meadow. Over billions of years suns form, burn, explode and create the elements which compose our planetary systems, nourishing water, and ourselves.

Due to the tremendous amount of snow that falls on the Main Divide just a few miles to the west of us, a large snowfield blankets the high mountains to the east of the coastline. In two places glaciers snake down deep valleys to the point where the valley floors flatten at the edge of the mountains. With such ready access, they have developed a healthy tourist trade, with wide trails that approach their snouts, guided group climbs onto the glaciers, and helicopter trips to the snowfield above.

Our first visit was to the Franz Josef glacier. From spacious parking at the end of a spur road the trail led through young forest. Then, atop a rise, we emerged to a panoramic view of the deep troughlike valley with the glacier snaking down from above. The entire valley floor in front of the glacier was covered with gravelly outwash coursed by braided stream channels. The trail hugged the side of the valley and signs warned against venturing outward: outbursts of meltwater trapped underneath the glacier could break out at any time and engulf unwary travelers out there.

A sign showed in pictures the historical levels and extent of the glacier here at various times since 1865. Lines on the large photograph indicated the height and endpoint of the glacier on those dates. Reading from the sign: “Despite small advances about every 20 years, the glacier has generally retreated over the last century. However, over the last 25 years the glacier has been in a state of advancement.” But by the time we visited the glacier itself on this day, there was again less ice than in the photo–it’s been receding again.

As we looked up the valley to the glacier and the mountainsides around it, the more recently ice-covered cliffs were bare rock. however, farther from the glacier we could see small plants (even on the cliffs!), then dense shrubbery, grading into mature forest, showing the progressive development of soil.

I was struck by the dynamic nature and size of the whole system: accumulation of snow at higher elevations, the movement of ice downward, its sculpturing of the valley walls and the return to their sides of vegetation as soil is formed once again. Then there’s the shifting balance between the movement and melting of ice and the rapidly changing outflow of meltwater from the glacier. Truly, here was Creation happening constantly before our eyes on a grand scale.

as we studied outcrops of tightly-squeezed schist, we were reminded of the much larger and longer scale of earth movements which have formed the rocks, compressed and baked them, and moved them into place.

Remember this amazing world and universe of which you are a part, and rejoice!


About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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