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The Franz Josef (Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere in Māori) is a 12 km (7.5 mi) long glacier located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. Together with the Fox Glacier 20 km (12 mi) to the south, it is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres (980 ft) above sea level, amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.
The first European description of one of the west-coast glaciers (believed to be Franz Josef) was made from the steam ship Mary Louisa in 1859. The glacier was later named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865. The Māori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere ('The tears of Hinehukatere'), arising from a local legend: Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Wawe was a less experienced climber than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her until an avalanche swept Wawe from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was broken hearted and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.
The glacier is currently 12 km (7.5 mi) long and terminates 19 km (12 mi) from the Tasman Sea. Fed by a 20-square-kilometre (7.7 sq mi) large snowfield at high altitude, it exhibits a cyclic pattern of advance and retreat, driven by differences between the volume of meltwater at the foot of the glacier and volume of snowfall feeding the névé.
Having retreated several kilometres between the 1940s and 1980s, the glacier entered an advancing phase in 1984 and at times has advanced at the phenomenal (by glacial standards) rate of 70 cm a day. The flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers. Over the longer term, the glacier has retreated since the last ice age, and it is believed that it extended into the sea some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
This cyclic behaviour is well illustrated by a postage stamp issued in 1946, depicting the view from St James Anglican Church. The church was built in 1931, with a panoramic altar window to take advantage of its location. By 1954, the glacier had disappeared from view from the church, but it reappeared in 1997. This is due to the highly variable conditions on the snowfield, which take around 5–6 years before they result in changes in the terminus location.
The glacier was still advancing until 2008, but since then it has entered a very rapid phase of retreat. As is the case for most other New Zealand glaciers which are mainly found on the eastern side of the southern alps, the shrinking process is attributed to global warming.
Based on past variations, scientists expect that Franz Josef Glacier will retreat 5 km and lose 38% of its mass by 2100 in a mid-range scenario of warming.
The glacier area is one of the main tourist attractions of the West Coast, with around 250,000 visitors a year, and up to 2,700 per day (2007). Guided and unguided walks up to and onto the glacier are possible. However, since April 2012 all glacier walks require a helicopter flight past the unstable terminal face,; glacier walks also require some specialised equipment, namely ice axes and crampons that latch onto a sturdy boot.
As the walking part of any tour up to the glacier takes a long time, and ends at the first icefall (a frozen waterfall, draping a natural step in the land underneath), numerous tourists book helicopter tours from one of the several local airlines, which usually drop their guests between the first and second icefalls, for a guided 1–2 hour walk through the broken ground atop the glacier. Although the glacial landscape changes almost daily, given the glaciers unusually fast flow, and some walks include passages through ice tunnels, they are still considered quite safe and only somewhat strenuous.
Franz Josef township is a little service village (approximately 330 inhabitants) located approximately 5 km away from the face of the glacier on State Highway 6. It has a small but busy heliport, numerous tourist accommodation options (with up to 2,000 people staying overnight during the main season) and a number of restaurants and shops.
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