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May 2018 Issue
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Diminished experiences

Franz Josef Glacier has retreated dramatically in recent years

You think the backcountry is getting overcrowded now? Imagine a future where access to the mountains is more difficult due to rock fall caused by retreating glaciers, or once popular tracks are too damaged by storms to walk. Where will you go tramping? Where everyone else is going, most likely.

We’ve all heard about how climate change will cause sea levels to rise and glaciers to melt. Both would be disastrous for outdoor recreation in New Zealand.

Coastal walks would become more difficult, or even impossible. Case in point: this summer, the Abel Tasman Coast Track permanently lost a campsite and suffered serious damage to bridges and tracks during a king tide that also coincided with a cyclone. The total clean-up bill, including for access roads to Abel Tasman and Kahurangi national parks, is about $12m.

Meanwhile, at altitude, trampers will be climbing alpine trails, negotiating heavy erosion, and once at their destination instead of being awed by a mighty white tongue of ice, they will be confronted with a barren rock field. It’s no fantasy: the Southern Alps has lost 24 per cent of its ice since 1977. By 2050, it is expected that 50 per cent will be gone. There’s a reason developers want to build a gondola at Franz Josef Glacier – you won’t be able to see it otherwise.

But as bad as sea level rise and glacial retreat are, what really struck me on reading our feature ‘Backcountry meltdown’ (p66) is the impact climate change will have on our tracks and ability to go tramping. More severe weather events – storms, heavy rain, strong winds – will make some tracks, even those away from the coasts or the mountains, too expensive to maintain. One example is the Kaituna Track in Golden Bay. During ex-tropical cyclone Gita this past summer, all its bridges were damaged and now, instead of repairing them, DOC is considering removing them and downgrading the track to a route – a classification that requires next to no maintenance. DOC says it cannot justify the expense of continually repairing the same tracks over and over.

Climate change means the conservation estate we all like to play on will shrink. The land area may be the same, but the places for recreation will be severely diminished – in access and spectacle.

It’s a terrible legacy to leave future trampers, but it was somewhat pleasing to read that while nothing can stop the gradual decline of glaciers or the rise in sea levels, there are things every outdoors person can do to mitigate, slow down and perhaps eventually reverse, the worst of the effects of a changing climate.