Helen Clark’s visit sparks discussion on the future of glaciers

Victoria University of Wellington's Antarctic Research Centre was delighted to host former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Helen Clark earlier this year to share details of key research projects seeking to better understand the impact climate change is having in New Zealand.

Helen Clark and three others stand next to a kitchenette, chatting and holding coffee cups.

Helen Clark spent time with staff and students from the centre before sitting down with Centre Director, Professor Andrew Mackintosh, Victoria University's Senior Research Fellow Dr Brian Anderson, PhD candidate Lauren Vargo, Chief Scientist for Climate-NIWA, Dr Sam Dean, and Victoria alum, now working at the University of Canterbury, Dr Heather Purdie, who all talked with Helen Clark about their areas of research focus— spanning the breadth of climate modelling to water security and threats to regional economies.

Speaking to the Antarctic Research Centre group, Helen Clark said she had accepted the offer because she was seeing the incredible impact climate change is having, including on some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world, and increasing extreme weather and storm events.

“I’ve found that for the developing countries their focus was very much on adaptation. But of course we know that unless you’re addressing the source of the problem you can’t adapt your way out of it. In the end you have to mitigate and that involves getting the carbon footprint down.

"These are the issues that I have a passionate interest in, and catching up with the latest scientific research is extremely important, because I will keep commenting on these issues."

A particular focus of the meeting was the changes observed in glaciers because of the impacts of climate change, both in New Zealand and worldwide, and the trickle down effects this would have for communities who lived near them and relied on them for access to clean water, irrigation for farming, and even to support the economy.

Professor Mackintosh shared research showing that glaciers are retreating significantly throughout the world.

“Glaciers have been retreating since the early 20th Century, but ice loss has accelerated in recent decades. The problematic areas are arid areas—particularly in central Asia and South America. Communities there often rely on water that runs off melting snow and ice. By looking at climate change features and doing some simple calculations, there’s estimations that this could impact at least 60 million people. From a water resources perspective, melting glaciers are terribly important.”

From there the discussion moved on to a New Zealand context, and PhD candidate Lauren Vargo shared insights on the NIWA End of Summer Snowline Survey, which has provided an ongoing record of key New Zealand glaciers since 1977.

Every year at the end of summer Victoria University and NIWA scientists take to the air in light aircraft to take photos of 50 New Zealand glaciers.

“We’re taking hundreds of photos of each, and by geotagging them and using modelling software we can now generate 3D models of glaciers, which visually show the changes in glacier size of the past 40 years,” says Lauren.

Dr Brian Anderson discussed the effects this changing glacial landscape might have: “There are more than 3,000 glaciers in New Zealand, and when they melt, they impact different parts of New Zealand in very different ways, even in quite a small geographic area—along the West Coast, an increase in meltwater can lead to flood events, while at the same time, the loss of glaciers in Canterbury will impact on irrigation and hydropower, and in Southland, the timing of the melt will impact on lowland water quality.”

A tangible example that Dr Anderson gave was the changes observed on the Franz Josef glacier which, he pointed out, had retreated 1.5km since 2012.

“If we don’t start to take action to mitigate climate change then it’s a nightmare scenario for glaciers,” said Dr Anderson. “All we’ll have are some glaciers on the highest peaks -- well known glaciers like Fox and Franz Josef will be almost gone.

“If we follow the Paris agreement and start reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly and start taking it out of the atmosphere after 2050, then we’ll have smaller but still spectacular glaciers. It’s really up to us.”