Question: What icy glacier plummets 8,500 feet from snowy alpine heights to end amid the emerald green of a rainforest?
Answer: Fox Glacier, New Zealand
The word “rainforest” is unlikely to summon images of snow, and yet both are in play at the terminus of New Zealand’s Fox Glacier. Certainly, at the glacier’s origin—the Southern Alps on the west coast of South Island—the landscape is as icy and windswept as you might expect. But, by the end of the glacier’s descent, eight miles later and 8,500 feet closer to sea level, its white face stands in dramatic contrast to the emerald green of the surrounding rainforest.
That alone makes Fox Glacier memorable. But its erratic behavior has also been captivating scientists recently. For more than a hundred years, it was in retreat, until it reversed course in 1985, becoming one of the rare continually advancing glaciers for almost a quarter century. But in 2009, it changed course again, and started a dramatic retreat. Reversing directions twice in 25 years might not seem like sudden movement to a lay person, but measured against geologic time, it makes Fox Glacier the equivalent of a quick change artist.
8 More Fascinating Fox Glacier Facts
- Fox Glacier (and its peer, Franz Josef) move about 10 times faster than the average glacier, thanks to the steep pitch and funnel-like quality of the terrain.
- It was named for the 19th-century Prime Minister Sir William Fox, infamous for usurping Maori land. To rebut this painful legacy, the name of the glacier was adapted to Fox/Te Moeka o Tuawe in 1998, reflecting the Maori name.
- About 14,000 years ago, Fox Glacier advanced so far that its ice reached past the coastline into the water. As it retreated, a vast block of calved ice settled into the sediment, and when it melted, left behind the “kettle lake” now named Lake Matheson.
- While the glacier was in retreat in the 19th century, settlers were arriving in droves, as part of New Zealand’s gold rush.
- 1,500 sea lions make their home near rocky Gillespie’s Beach, once covered by the advancing ice.
- The area of snow accumulation at the top of a glacier is called its nevé. Fox’s nevé is nearly 14 square miles in size—larger than the city of Christchurch.
- It is one of the easiest glaciers on earth to reach, with an average of 1,000 visitors a day during temperate seasons.
- A husband and wife who underestimated the power of the glacier crossed the safety perimeter and posed for a photo directly at the terminal face—and were crushed by 10 tons of ice.
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Courtesy of CNN