Lynley Hargreaves' Vanishing Ice (Potton & Burton) 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.
In the process, the book investigates the way nature, science and culture interact and sometimes collide, while providing a fascinating insight into the way New Zealand’s glaciers work. As the world warms, our glaciers are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, which gives Vanishing Ice an important, if not poignant, place in the books about Aotearoa’s natural world. We talk to the author.
What drew you to glaciers?
This book feels for me like the culmination of a lot of life-long interests: chaos theory, mountains, the history of New Zealand exploration, and looking at the way our understanding of science evolves. But of course it helps that my partner, through a love of maths and mountains, became a glaciologist! I also just really thought that there are great stories to tell about New Zealand glaciers.
What was something you learned in the course of your research that really surprised you?
I think most of us think of ice ages as long-settled science – you know, there are movies about ice ages for preschoolers!
But in fact it’s still pretty mysterious. Decades on from figuring out that wobbles in the earth’s orbit around the sun trigger ice ages, we still don’t know how they do that, or in which hemisphere. One idea I love in the book is some new science suggesting that instead of the Northern Hemisphere controlling ice ages, as has been long assumed, it might be the south – in fact the sunken continent of Zealandia – that’s the controlling factor.
There’s also some pretty astonishing recent research in New Zealand on how quickly the ice age ended – that instead of thousands of years, it might have taken just a few hundred years for much of the ice to melt. Better understanding that kind of abrupt climate shift could have implications for how the current human-caused warming plays out.
What can you tell us about early Māori discoverers and their interactions with Aotearoa’s glaciers?
Early Māori interacted with glaciers and the mountain environment a lot more than I had previously imagined – they likely traversed across some of our biggest glaciers, and even had a burial ground in glaciated terrain.
What especially surprised me was that at the same time that Māorihad a rich vocabulary relating to ice, Captain James Cook didn’t have any word for glacier. When he sailed down the West Coast in 1769, Cook recorded what may have been the first written description of a New Zealand glacier. But because he had no word for glacier, we’ll never know.
How worried are you about the future of our glaciers?
Out of all the impacts of climate change the world has coming – catastrophic fires, drought, storm surges – the disappearing glaciers of a small first-world nation is the least of anyone’s worries.
But the changes are dramatic. It’s already starting to feel like a dystopian landscape, with huge areas of ice-worn rock where glacier ice used to be. New Zealand glaciers are highly sensitive to climate change. For the future, that means there’s a huge difference between stringent reductions and runaway emissions. In one scenario we have shorter glaciers. In the other, entire ice fields will be gone, leaving shattered and collapsing mountainsides behind.
Vanishing Ice: Stories of New Zealand’s Glaciers by Lynley Hargreaves, photography by Petr Hlavacek. Published by Potton & Burton; $59.99 RRP.