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The origin of The Final Meltdown

To raise awareness, encourage, and convince people that we need to take stronger actions to stop climate change and consider our own human activities. Our human fingerprints are driving climate change and the loss of our precious glaciers. We’ve already lost around 200 glaciers in New Zealand and they’re now melting seven times faster than they were 20 years ago. As a lifestyle and outdoor adventure photographer I am feeling even more compelled to tell this story after seeing the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stating that the planet will continue to see intense rainfall and flooding, even more heatwaves, longer warmer seasons, and shorter cold seasons. Glaciers are unique indicators of climate change and respond primarily to changes in temperature and precipitation. Recent studies show if we continue on our current rate of warming, by the end of the century NZ will only have around 20% of the ice that’s still here today. This will have a massive impact on our water resources such as hydro dams, alpine sports, tourism, and safety due to sea level rise.

Image of Canon Master Virginia Woolf photographing glaciers

“Capturing the beauty of what we still have now, and the tragedy of it’s rapid disappearance. What we have in New Zealand is really special and it’s disappearing before our eyes, in our lifetime.”

Virginia Woolf

The Final Meltdown is a photographic series which aims to help communicate the work of scientists at the forefront of glacial research. Their research has long warned that warming temperatures driven by climate change are eating into glaciers and ice sheets around the world, contributing to higher sea levels that threaten our populous coastal cities. Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity and incredible experience getting amongst the phenomenal work of scientists during their field work, especially working alongside the amazing Heather Purdie on the Fox and Tasman Glaciers, and Tasman Lake. Heather is an Associate Professor at University of Canterbury specialising in Glaciology and Physical Geography. Her research projects include monitoring glacier mass balance, dynamics, and climate change, with a focus on mountain glaciers in Te Tiritiri-o-te-moana, the New Zealand Southern Alps.

“We’ve already lost around 200 glaciers in New Zealand and they’re now melting seven times faster than they were 20 years ago.”

Virginia Woolf

Fox Glacier | Te Moeka o Tauwe
Fox Glacier, also known as Te Moeka o Tuawe in Māori, stretches over 13 kilometers within Westland Tai Poutini National Park on New Zealand's South Island. Positioned near the village of Fox Glacier, it stands out as one of the world's most accessible glaciers, boasting a terminal face just 300 meters above sea level. Fed by multiple alpine glaciers, it descends 2,600 meters from the Southern Alps, terminating close to rainforest terrain. Despite a historical trend of retreat, between 1985 and 2009, Fox Glacier notably advanced, with an impressive rate of about one meter per week in 2006. Its meltwater feeds into the Fox River, shaping the surrounding landscape and forming features like Lake Matheson, a kettle lake created by the glacier's retreat during the last ice age.Since the culmination of the previous advance phase in 2009, the Fox Glacier has lost 1.4 km in length. At 11.6 km, it is now the shortest it has been in recorded history. The current rate of recession is approximately 100 m per year. In addition to shortening, the ice of the Fox Glacier is also getting thinner; in some regions, this thinning has exceed 100m over the past decade.

“Fox Glacier was advancing, but in 2009 it started receding. Since about 2020 'a switch has been flicked'and Fox Glacier has started disappearing at an alarming rate. It is smaller now than ever before in recorded history.”Heather Purdie

Glaciers are unique indicators of climate change and are especially sensitive to changes in temperature. If global heating can be kept below 1.5 degrees, our glaciers might stabilise. However, smaller glaciers at more northern latitudes and lower altitudes might still disappear.If we can’t keep under 1.5 degrees, snow may fall mostly as rain, and glaciers will melt faster than they can regenerate over winter.The Fox Glacier shoot was successful despite some challenges posed by repeated flooding and a significant landslide that led to the closure of the walking track in March 2019. We accessed by helicopter at several drop off and pick up points on the glacier where the science teams were working and monitoring glacier mass balance. I had hoped to walk back up at sunset to capture the glacier and it was only then that I discovered the walking path was no longer accessible! I was in awe of the dynamic environment surrounding me, and senses were heightened with the sounds, the shapes, and the colours of the ice caves from soft pastel blues through to deep aqua and turquoise. The sound of ice crunching as the crampons take grip while stepping on the glacier, and the sound of tumbling of boulders and rockfall down into the valley - there is no longer any ice butting up against the valley walls as they erode in real time.
The Final Meltdown | Affects of climate change on New Zealand's glaciers By Virginia Woolf Gallery
Tasman Lake
Tasman Lake is a proglacial lake located in the South Island of New Zealand, formed by the retreat of the Tasman Glacier. During the early 1970s, multiple small meltwater ponds dotted the landscape of the Tasman Glacier. Over the following decades, these ponds gradually coalesced, forming what is now known as Tasman Lake. As temperatures rise, the Tasman Glacier has been rapidly receding, resulting in increased water flow into Tasman Lake. This process has significantly altered the landscape of the region and has had various environmental impacts, including changes to water quality, ecosystems, and tourism activities. The expansion of Tasman Lake serves as a visible indicator of the profound effects of climate change on New Zealand's glaciers and natural landscapes. Predictions suggest that Tasman Lake will continue to grow, potentially reaching a maximum length of around 16 kilometers over the next one or two decades.
We spent a day on Tasman Lake, which is rapidly growing formed by the retreat of the Tasman Glacier. We travelled by boat with Glacier Explorers on the lake navigating our way around floating icebergs towards the Tasman Glacier terminal face stopping at a safe distance from the mighty face to carry out surveys of the lake.
The Final Meltdown | Affects of climate change on New Zealand's glaciers By Virginia Woolf Gallery
Tasman Glacier | Haupapa
Accessing New Zealand's largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier, by helicopter was a treat, with the scenic flight adding to the experience. We joined Heather and her team as they measured melt rates in the glacier's crevasses and captured the grand scale of the glacier landscape. Being lowered into a crevasse was a remarkable experience, allowing us to hang there amidst wind and temperature sensors while photographing Heather at work.
Tasman Lake, a proglacial lake in New Zealand's South Island, formed due to the retreat of the Tasman Glacier. Initially, small meltwater ponds dotted the glacier in the early 1970s, which merged into Tasman Lake by 1990. The presence of Tasman Lake has accelerated the glacier's retreat. Initially, this occurred by undercutting the glacier's cliff, leading to cliff collapse into the lake. However, since 2006, as the lake expanded and become deeper, much larger icebergs break off due to the buoyant forces of the lake water. In addition, submerged ice aprons measuring up to 50-60 meters (160-200 feet) can extend from the cliff, periodically breaking off and filling the lake with ice.
Today the lake is 6km in length, 2km across and up to 280m deep.
Haupapa/Tasman Glacier, the largest glacier in New Zealand, flows south and east from the Southern Alps towards the Mackenzie Basin in the South Island. Stretching 23.5 kilometers in length and up to 4 kilometers wide, it remains the country's longest glacier, situated entirely within Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Despite considerable shrinkage since the 1990s, it still reaches thicknesses of 600 meters. With an area covering 101 square kilometers, the glacier begins at an altitude of 3,000 meters above sea level and accumulates significant snowfall during winter and spring, sometimes up to 50 meters. Even after summer melt, around 6 meters of that snow may persist at its high-altitude head.
This trip also encompassed staying for 2 nights at the Tasman Saddle hut, built in 1962, perched on top of a rock outcrop at the head of Tasman Glacier with spectacular views of New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki Mt Cook. Up on the glacier, we traversed across the incredible glacial landscape, and I was always roped to my guide when travelling on the glacier so you can’t just wander around to get the right light or angle, you have to communicate if you want to stop to take a shot, and you have to concentrate on where your next step is when walking across the glacier - I did fall knee-deep into a crevasse a couple of times!
The Final Meltdown | Affects of climate change on New Zealand's glaciers By Virginia Woolf Gallery
A behind the scenes look at The Final Meltdown

A behind the scenes look at The Final Meltdown

How Virginia used her camera to connect and capture
There were many challenges presented by the dynamic glacial environment in bringing this project to life. Despite these tricky conditions, Virginia was able to put her equipment to the test. The project was captured on the EOS R3 and EOS 1DX Mark III.
The Final Meltdown | Affects of climate change on New Zealand's glaciers By Virginia Woolf Gallery

Virginia Woolf

A natural creator since she was a child, Virginia first craved to be a fashion designer, but her doubting parents made her do food science instead. Undaunted, she funneled her creative energy into creating and marketing new food products, but soon found herself in a boring corporate rut, so broke free to find her creative force again. She threw in everything to pursue her love of photography. She studied photographic design and trained as a press photographer for a national newspaper honing her craft shooting people in all sorts of situations and from all walks of life - much of which still applies to her commercial work on outdoor adventure, lifestyle, and portrait shoots. She also dabbles in architecture from time to time when not travelling the world seeking adventure - her commitment to tell stories through her lens.

Image of Canon Master Virginia Woolf using Canon gear to shoot
The Canon gear Virginia used