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Water cycle diagram_University of Waikato

Water cycle diagram – University of Waikato

By NZAC Sustainability Advocate Shane Orchard

Now-familiar images of retreating glaciers are easy to equate with climate change. But there’s much more to it than that. Here we dive into part one of a series that will explore the effects of climate change in the mountains. Within our lifetimes these changes will take hold in many of the alpine environments we have come to know; indeed they already are.

For snow and ice lovers there’s an obvious issue with a warming trend. A diverse range of activities may be affected, from climbing to backcountry touring, and other snow sports. In a temperate land such as Aotearoa we have limited recourse to substitute locations if winter freezing levels rise, and even in larger countries, feasibility of access and sunk investment in existing infrastructure create challenges for an adaptive approach. Despite this, appreciating the migration of resources to new locations may be part of the new modus operandi in a fast-changing world.

In the recreation sector, impacts of snow and ice retreat are already evident. For example, access is certainly changing at a fast pace in mountainous areas subject to glacial retreat. Obvious examples are the growth of moraine walls in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and the creation of the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. Depending on your point of view, there are both positives and negatives here. There may be a need to establish alternative packing routes (such as Fitzgerald Pass into the Copland), to relocate huts to more useful locations (as has been the case with Hooker Hut), or to regulate increased tourism impacts at the Tasman lake. In these recreational matters, responses could also be seen as opportunities, despite the fact that new investments will need to be made. However, these are matters relating largely to snow and ice, and they are literally just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, as you discover when you delve deeper into the workings of climate change.

Many of the projected impacts of climate change can be related to changing temperatures, as generalised in the concept of ‘global warming’, fuelled by carbon pollution and the green-house effect. Fluctuations aside, these temperature shifts will manifest themselves in complex patterns across the globe—affecting both land and water environments in variable ways. What is less obvious is the likelihood of profound effects on Earth’s water cycle. Due to the fact that the world’s water resources are literally a single interconnected resource on a global level, we have a large problem on our hands. As we all know, water is life!

Of course, our snow and ice examples are also water-related effects. The whole water cycle is itself changing at multiple scales and this underpins a huge number of other processes important to wellbeing, sustainability, and survival across most aspects of nature and society. In our next issue we’ll pick-up the story and explore some of the likely changes we may not be prepared for but may wish to do something about.

by Shane Orchard

This article first appeared in The Climber issue 93. You can view the full issue at

Posted: 30/08/16

Posted By: Kester Brown