ARC Glaciologist's research on Franz Josef Glacier
From a ledge high above Franz Josef, Dr Brian Anderson, a glaciologist at Antarctic Research Centre looks down at the steep, ice-carved valley below.
26 April 2018
Until recently, the gorge had been covered in ice, concealing everything beneath. Plants are now starting to grow where the glacier once filled the valley, which have left a shadow along the walls, marking where the glacier used to be.
“I’d never seen this gorge until the last decade, so I never knew what was under here,” Anderson says.
When he was growing up on the West Coast, Anderson spent a lot of time in the mountains. For much of his life, the glaciers were advancing, growing in response to a localised cooling period that lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a period of growth that was both spectacular and unique.
When he started studying Franz Josef as a glaciologist, he visited every month for 12 years to measure stakes he had drilled into the ice, to see how far the glacier had moved.
It was an old-school style of glaciology, he says, similar to how the glacier was measured earlier in the century - on one trip, whilst scrambling around the forest, he found several of the stakes used to measure the glacier many decades earlier, which had since been forgotten in the forest that grew in the glacier’s wake.
When Anderson wrote his thesis about Franz Josef in the early 2000s, he projected a sharp retreat in the coming years, in response to the warming climate. When the retreat began in earnest in 2008, even he was surprised at how quickly the glacier started disappearing.
“It’s faster than I thought it could possibly retreat, to be honest, and it’s the fastest in the historic record,” he says.
He has started using more modern tools to chronicle the glacier’s movements. He has a network of nine strategically placed cameras taking photos every hour, which he stitches together into timelapses. They are in obscure spots off the beaten track so they won’t be disturbed, and lodged in boxes, mostly to protect them from kea. He has lost two cameras to lightning strikes, but the rest have survived, feeding a collection of what is now 100,000 photos.
One of his time lapses shows a year of retreat at Fox Glacier in 2012, in which a large chunk of its tongue collapsed. It went viral, because it was a stark illustration of how dramatically a glacier can change in a remarkably small period of time.
“I see all these things that I didn’t really realise were changing," he says.
"Basically, everything’s moving, everything’s coming downhill, there are little rockfalls everywhere, it’ll rain a lot and it’ll flood and masses of ice will fall off the glacier, just all these things you wouldn’t necessarily notice just by visiting.”
His latest findings show something quite extraordinary: Franz Josef is advancing. Since the end of 2016, it has crept forward by about 80m, which would make it one of the few glaciers in the world that is growing, not shrinking.
It’s not much, Anderson says - an 80m advance after a 1400m retreat is one step forward after 18 steps backwards - and he has no doubt it will retreat again. Already, after a historically warm summer, the glacier appears to be leaking, with a large hole spurting water that wasn’t there last year.
But it’s a rare glimmer of hope in a field that may one day become redundant, once the glaciers are all but gone.
“How many advancing glaciers are there in the world that you can go and visit?” he says.
“It’s probably only a handful.”
He pauses as a helicopter passes overhead, the deafening sound of its rotors filling the empty space of the gorge, dropping off another load of tourists onto the ice, tiny black dots against the sprawling white ice.
Anderson is not hopeful that emissions can be curbed to keep the glacier looking like it does now; more retreat is inevitable.
It has already happened so quickly he can see the retreat through his own children. He walked onto the glacier with his first child, but not with his second. By then it was too late.
But right now, for a brief moment, the glacier is growing, and it still looks spectacular.
“It’s really special that the glacier’s advancing at the moment,” he says.
“It’s probably not going to do it for very long, just because it’s so warm. But even though the big picture is one of retreat and a really obvious human cause for that, I think we also have to appreciate what we have, which is still really special.”
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