Review: Vanishing Ice: Stories of New Zealand’s Glaciers

Reviewed by Alison Ballance

Author: Lynley Hargreaves. Reviewer: Alison Ballance. Written by Lynley Hargreaves, Vanishing Ice: Stories of New Zealand’s Glaciers tells the stories of our glaciers through the lens of human interaction, with chapters moving through time from first Māori discoverers to colonial explorers, mountaineers and modern glaciologists. November 2022 release

Reviewed by Alison Ballance

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Author:Lynley Hargreaves

Publisher:Potton & Burton


Date Published:10 November 2022




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In Vanishing Ice: Stories of New Zealand Glaciers, Lynley Hargreaves has written a science history of New Zealand glaciers that is also a terrific scientific mystery story.

The book is a compelling account of frozen water, an ephemeral state of being that is powerful enough to sculpt the landscape and influence global climate, yet fragile enough to succumb to mere warmth. The story of ice on our planet goes back millions of years but Hargreaves focuses on the 800-or-so years of human habitation in Aotearoa New Zealand. She tells tales of daring Māori women who crossed glaciers for love and for trade. For much of the book, she focuses on Victorian geologists and explorers mapping and naming ice and mountains as they sought to discover whether there was any evidence to support the then controversial idea of ice-ages. She ends with scientists seeking to measure and understand glaciers before they melt away.

At a local level, glaciers are a juggling act between precipitation – snow - which is the basic building block and temperature which determines freezing and melting. Ice-ages, it turns out, have waxed and waned globally due to wobbles in the Earth’s orbit. The synchrony of these between northern and southern hemispheres is, however, still up for debate.

Vanishing Ice is full of detail, yet Hargreaves’ writing is light and clear, and it is a pleasure to have her as a guide. As I read, I found myself sharing facts and figures with people around me. In her introduction she tells us that ‘every 500 metres we drive, for example, melts a kilogram of glacier ice.’ That scarily graspable number hangs over the book like a death threat. It helps make sense of how glaciologist Trevor Chinn’s original 1978 inventory of 3144 New Zealand glaciers – the first time they had been tallied – had shrunk to 2918 by 2016 and will continue to decline as rising global temperatures ensure “endangered” glaciers fall off the extinction cliff.

Hargreaves introduces us to glaciers with very different characters. Beloved of tourists, the Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere is a fast-moving beast that responds quickly to extra snow falling at its head by advancing its terminus down valley and then equally swiftly retreating up-valley when the Tasman Sea experiences a marine heat wave. Haupapa/ Tasman Glacier is a massive sluggard that contains a third of the country’s ice, more than 600 metres thick in places and nearly a thousand years old. This behemoth has been slow to react to climate change but even so between 1978 and 2016, it lost ‘19 per cent of its area to a growing terminal lake’ and melting, or downwasting, has thinned it considerably.

Hargreaves also writes of smaller, less famous glaciers, such as her favourite, the Douglas.  Then there’s the nearly disappeared Ivory Glacier, which for years was the focus of intense measurements by Trevor Chinn, and the Brewster, one of just two glaciers having their mass balance measured, to determine how much ice volume they are gaining - or more likely losing.

Loss is a strong theme in the book and one that the many photographs drive home. Again and again, there are paired photos that show us a bulging ice wall from a century ago compared to today’s pale waif (or more likely a scrappy pile of gravel sheltering a sliver of ice). The selection of historic photos is terrific, while Petr Hlavacek’s contemporary images add drama and beauty.

Global warming is definitely not a glacier’s friend. Vanishing Ice left me feeling that older Kiwis have experienced a last glacial hurrah and that younger generations will be left only what Hargreaves describes as the ‘ghost glaciers of ice-ages past that haunt our landscape.’ But hopefully this book will serve as a call to arms, to limit global warming before iconic glaciers such as Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere are ‘reduced to remnant ice patches’ within the next century.

 Reviewed by Alison Ballance

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