TCS Daily

Climate Glacier Politics

By Roger Bate - February 4, 2005 12:00 AM

What started out as a glacier hiking holiday in the fabulous Southern Alps of New Zealand descended into something quite different. Is the Franz Josef glacier, the most famous in New Zealand, receding and an example of man-made climate change or is it in fact increasing? And if the latter, does this explain why it has not been in the news in the past year, while it dominated local media over the millennium? In other words, are environmentalists only interested in receding glaciers, since they provide the bad news they need to scare us into action on fossil fuels?

Not aware I was going to have to pose these questions, I boarded a helicopter with great anticipation of some marvelous scenery and grueling climbing. Having just been in a helicopter over the devastated, and soon to be malaria-ridden, Port of Galle in Sri Lanka it was good to chopper into the cool of the Franz Josef Glacier -- one of the most beautiful spots of a beautiful country.

The glacier is the prime tourist attraction of the Westland National Park. The Geologist and explorer Julius van Haast named it after Franz Josef, emperor of Austria-Hungary in 1865. In more recent times it had retreated over 600 yards between 1999 and 2003. At that time local papers regularly, and the international climate alarmists occasionally, cited it as evidence of man-made climate change. Indeed, when I mentioned the trip to one environmental friend, she joked that I should go now to see the glacier before it disappeared.

But how things change. While many glaciers around the world are alleged to be shrinking because of global warning, the Franz Josef is now growing at a rate of about 12 feet a day (and there has been no significant change of temperature in New Zealand in the recent past). Local guide Karl Erickson said that on many days it was moving so fast that it was too unstable and therefore dangerous to hike or climb on it. Its speed of growth was actually affecting the adventure tourism business. New paths, ice bridges and steps for the less athletic, have to be carved out everyday by the skilled and very fit guides (swinging an ice axe for several hours a day is most tiring). Clambering over the lower reaches of the slower moving part of the Glacier (gradient probably 1 in 10, one foot drop for each ten foot horizontally), every few minutes one hears ice movements further up in the faster moving part (gradient 1 in 3), which is often above the cloud line and not so accessible, and exceptionally dangerous to climb.

New Zealand climate scientist Jim Salinger commented recently that although the glacier had been a cause celebre of warming alarmists, glacier growth was now accelerating due to continued cold and stormy weather throughout New Zealand's changeable summer (locally known as the worst for 50 years), which has caused a build-up of snow and ice at the head of the glacier. The glacier is now about 7 miles long and has been growing for over a year.

I talked with the guides afterwards about the climate furore and most just shrug about climate politics. They all know that the glacier is constantly changing, and although many may believe that man's emissions alter the climate and affect the glacier, there isn't enough evidence to know conclusively. Karl acknowledged that pessimism was good for the green movement, and that there had been less interest from environmental reporters about the changing glacier in the recent past.

As Philip Stott Professor of Biogeography at University of London told me, 'change is the norm in all habitats', especially fast moving ones such as glaciers. But only bad environmental news seems to sell, so don't expect to hear too much about Franz Josef again -- until it starts to shrink again, as its bound to do at some stage.

Dr Roger Bate is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute


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