In February, Nelson photographer Virginia Woolf drove to Aoraki/Mount Cook to document glacier loss, as part of her climate change photography project Final Meltdown. But she was worried sick as she hit the road. Four days earlier, Cyclone Gabrielle had struck Gisborne, her childhood home, and she hadn’t heard from her parents since.
She’d spent the past few days in a flurry of calls and texts, even asking a cousin to get their local policeman friend to knock on her parents’ door to check they were okay. As she drove down the South Island, the parallels with her project weren’t lost on her.
“It’s just typical of the time we are in now,” she says. “I’m off to document climate change’s effects on glaciers while my parents and hometown have catastrophic flooding.”
Finally, just as Woolf turned inland at Geraldine, she got a message from a high school friend, whose mother lives next to her parents. She’d seen Woolf’s dad happily pottering in the garden, and both were fine.
Woolf drove on, relieved. But the anxiety sat with her the rest of the way to Aoraki. She still couldn’t get in touch with her parents—in fact, she wouldn’t manage to talk to them until the following week.
Woolf began Final Meltdown to raise awareness of the extreme melting of New Zealand’s glaciers. They act as freshwater reservoirs feeding our big South Island rivers, and impact not just their local alpine environment but life downstream: biodiversity, freshwater management, tourism, sea level, and recreation.
Glaciers, highly sensitive to temperature changes we barely notice without instruments, are now melting and thinning at an alarming rate. Woolf conceived of the Canon-funded project after visiting Fox Glacier and feeling shocked at how far it had receded in a decade, her son’s lifetime.
To shoot the series she shadowed scientists working to monitor such changes, spending two days on the West Coast’s Fox Glacier and two nights on Aoraki’s Tasman Glacier in Tasman Saddle Hut. A day on Tasman Lake allowed her to document changes at the mighty glacier’s terminal face.
The images were not easy to shoot. With scientists needing to work in broad daylight, the snow was reflective, the light harsh. She was constantly roped to a guide for safety, couldn’t easily move where she wanted, and had to keep an eye on every step.
“You can’t wander around getting the right light, you can’t shoot on the fly and you have to communicate a lot and concentrate on where you’re walking,” she says. “I did fall knee-deep into a crevasse a couple of times.”
Woolf also enjoyed her downtime in the mountains, getting to know the scientists. One was University of Canterbury glaciologist Dr Heather Purdie, a former Fox Glacier guide. She’s also a climber, and is now measuring the changes she’s observed recreationally over her lifetime.
Purdie says New Zealand glaciers are particularly sensitive to 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. Life would be very different in New Zealand without them; in the past 160 years, our farming and other industries have been built around their existence.
“The snow that falls in winter gets stored and glaciers release that water in the summer at its warmest,” Purdie says. “If you’re irrigating crops or water supply during summertime and you don’t have a glacier at the top of the catchment, the rain flows straight out.”
When she first began her work, Fox Glacier was advancing, but in 2009 it started receding. Since about 2020, she says, “a switch has been flicked” and Fox has started disappearing even more quickly.
“We are not getting enough snow going into the top of the glacier to sustain the amount melting away from the lower portions,” she says. “They aren’t just getting shorter but also thinner. As they do, they expose all this unstable rock around the edges and we see more rockfall coming onto it.”
The rocks hold heat from the sun. So as those lower portions thin, “they’re also getting dirtier and melt faster”.
At Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest, she has been putting temperature and wind sensors inside crevasses to examine how they contribute to melting, which hasn’t yet been accounted for in glacial models. She has found that we’re underestimating how much snow is melting off in summer when crevasses are exposed to air.
Despite a shared concern for the future, both Woolf and Purdie are thankful to spend time on the ice beasts that have shaped so much of New Zealand—Purdie since her dad first took her to Aoraki when she was a child.
“I was always fascinated by ice ages and the idea that glaciers were once much bigger, that this thing could swallow the landscape,” she says.
For Woolf, the experience of being up on the glaciers was very moving.
“It has actually been one of the most amazing experiences I have had,” she says. “It was also devastating watching the glacier melt in real time.”
On Fox, she photographed a guide standing in the lee of an ice wall with a puddle at his feet.