Franz Josef stabilising after big retreat

The spectacular ice retreat at Franz Josef Glacier appears to be stabilising, at least for now, a glaciologist says.

"What has happened at Franz Josef in the last few years is incredibly dramatic - almost 25 years of advance has been lost in just five years," Dr Brian Anderson, a Victoria University senior research fellow in glaciology, said.

The glacier had now completely disconnected from the debris-covered ice at the front, and seemed to be stabilising at a position it last retreated past in the 1970s, he said.

The New Year floods washed out the 'ice bridge' which had been providing the last, not very safe, foot access to the glacier.

The Department of Conservation is working on a new viewing point, which it hopes to open in the next couple of weeks.

Area manager Wayne Costello said the Waiho (Waiau) River, which issues from the glacier, had left its normal channel in the January 2 floods, where it had been for several years, and that had made maintaining the track and structures harder.

The viewpoint at nearby Fox Glacier had been upgraded and the Franz one would follow soon, he said.

In the 90 years between 1893 and 1983 - the end of the last big retreat - Franz Josef Glacier receded about 3km.

Between 1983 and 2008 it advanced almost 1.5km after heavy snowfalls in the neve at the top of the glacier, but in the past four years it has melted almost 500m.

Since last year tourists have been flown on to the ice by a short helicopter ride, as the terminal face is currently about 3km from the car park.

A web camera has been set up by the Department of Conservation and Franz Josef Glacier Guides, with the assistance of Dr Anderson, to monitor the valley. Visit http://www.snowgrass.co.nz/franz/

- Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star