It is not known how far Māori ventured onto the upper reaches of glaciers, but they had several words for the snow and ice of high alpine areas, usually including the term huka (frost, snow, cold):
- whenuahuka: the permanent snows of the peaks
- hukapapa: the great snowfields
- hukapo: the glaciers
- waiparahoaka: glacial sediment
- waihuka: the snow water that rushed from glacial sediment.
Abel Tasman and James Cook both sailed along the South Island’s West Coast, but the first description of a New Zealand glacier – probably Franz Josef – is from the log of the ship Mary Louisa in 1859. Over the next few decades, men such as Thomas Brunner, Julius Haast, Charlie Douglas and A. P. Harper explored and mapped the South Island’s glaciers.
A magnet for tourists
Glaciers, and the spectacular scenery shaped by glacial erosion, form the heart of most South Island national parks. The national parks of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland are recognised internationally. Together they constitute the 2.6 million-hectare Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
The glaciers of Aoraki/Mount Cook, and the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, have been major visitor attractions from the earliest days of tourism.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
More than 40% of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is buried beneath glacier ice. Aoraki/Mount Cook’s first tourist hotel, the Hermitage, was built in 1884 next to the Mueller Glacier. It was destroyed in 1913 by floods of debris-laden water that broke through the Mueller’s moraine wall. The two successors of the hotel were sited on safer ground. The Ball Glacier, which joins the Tasman, was popular for skiing, and several national championships were held there in the 1930s.
Today, visitors enjoy guided trips and mountaineering on the glacier-clad peaks. Also on offer are scenic flights and ski-plane landings on the upper Tasman Glacier.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park
The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are major attractions in the park. At Franz Josef, tourists flock to see the startling cascades of white ice. The glacier is visited by about 250,000 people each year.
As at Aoraki/Mount Cook, guided glacier walks and climbs, scenic flights and heli-skiing are popular at the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.
Geologist Julius Haast, exploring the Aoraki/Mt Cook region in 1862, was awed by the grandeur of its peaks and glaciers:
‘As far as the eye could reach everywhere snow and ice and rock appeared around us, and in such gigantic proportions that I sometimes thought I was dreaming, and instead of being in New Zealand, I found myself in the Arctic or Antarctic mountain regions.’ 1
Water for power and irrigation
Glaciers are a valuable resource, holding vast volumes of fresh water locked up as ice. In the present warming climate, New Zealand’s eastern glaciers are releasing more water to rivers than they are gaining each year from snowfall.
Most glacier melting takes place in summer. This boosts the seasonal flow of a number of rivers used for electricity generation and irrigation. It is especially important for maintaining river flow and the levels of hydro storage lakes during dry summers. For example, 39% of New Zealand’s glacier ice is concentrated in the glaciers that drain into Lake Pūkaki. The Pūkaki catchment is part of the Waitaki River system, which has eight hydroelectric power stations.