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About Glaciers @ Otago

This website is dedicated to the research concerning glaciers and climate change that is conducted by members of the Glaciers and Climate Change Research Cluster. The cluster is situated within the  Humanities Division at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and is led by Assoc. Prof. Sean Fitzsimons from the Department of Geography. The focus of the research covers several different glaciological themes, including both past and contemporary glacier behaviour as well as methods of investigating and monitoring glacier change in response to changing climate.


Icebergs in Lake Tasman

The work conducted in New Zealand focuses primarily on monitoring the health of both valley and mountain glaciers. This will increase our  understanding of how glaciers in the Southern Alps are responding to climate change, as well as the impacts that  decreased ice storage will have downstream. Much of our New Zealand glacial work has focussed on the Brewster Glacier (a small mountain glacier near Mt Aspiring) and the Tasman Glacier (the largest New Zealand valley glacier near Mt Cook).


frozen pond on Wright Lower GlacierOur work also focuses on small, alpine glaciers in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, which are at sub-zero temperatures year round. From 1995 to 2005 Sean Fitzsimons regularly excavated tunnels into the soles of these glaciers in order to develop an understanding of the behaviour of cold ice. This work started out in collaboration with Prof. Reginald Lorrain who questioned the long-held view that at sub-zero temperatures glaciers are inert and unable to modify their landscape. This assumption fails to explain the presence of small moraines that form adjacent to some glaciers in this region, nor does it explain the presence of relatively high amounts of debris that is entrained at the glacier sole. The work on cold glaciers has recently been extended into a comparison with glaciers in the Canadian Arctic, working in collaboration with Prof. Martin Sharp, and into work on the Ross Ice Shelf with Assoc. Prof. Gary Wilson.


Camping at KilimanjaroThe ongoing research conducted on Kilimanjaro by Dr. Nicolas Cullen has focused on the recent and longterm variations in ice extent within the context of 20th century climate change in East Africa. The work involves the use of energy and mass balance models to develop a better understanding of the climatic controls on retreat of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro. Field programmes have enabled the installation of two automatic weather stations on and next to two different glaciers near the top of the mountain. Satellite data and aerial photography have been used to determine the areal extent of the remaining glaciers and ice packs on Kilimanjaro.


Lastly, our research also includes reconstructing glacier extent and behaviour during the last glacial maximum in the Southern Alps. Much of the southern New Zealand landscape is sculpted by the waxing and waning of ancient glaciers and still retains fragmentary evidence of their extent and response to long-term climate changes. The majority of our work has focussed on large glacier calved lakes and the adjacent areas which mark their maxima, like lakes Hawea, Pukaki, and Wanaka. Cores of lake sediments can also be used to reconstruct changes in the vegetation history of particular areas using pollen grains. Such work into reconstructing the vegetation changes have focussed on Westland glacial lakes like Mapourika and Moeraki and the Okarito Lagoon in collaboration with Dr Marcus Vandergoes.

The function of this website is to disseminate information about our glacial research to the wider community and act as a nexus for collaborative work. For more information about the contributors and collaborators of the Glaciers and Climate Change Research Cluster, please refer to the contributors page.

© 2009 Department of Geography, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand