Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Three years ago, climate change activists said that a glacier in the deep south of New Zealand was a "global warming casualty," shrinking because of the human impact on global climate patterns.
This week, a company that takes visitors over the popular tourist attraction confirmed that the Franz Josef Glacier is in fact advancing, growing several meters by the day, following an unseasonably cool summer in the southern hemisphere.
As the Kyoto Protocol comes into effect around the world on Wednesday, the ebb and flow of the glacier has turned the spotlight once again onto environmentalists' claims.
Mark Mellsop, manager of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides company, said the glacier's flow rate in the center was about three meters a day, while the front -- known as the "terminal face" -- was pushing up against a large rockface, spilling over and around it. Within weeks the rock would be completely covered.
"We've had a couple of years of very good snowfalls in winter, and we've had a really unusually cold summer -- about the coldest in New Zealand for 60 years, " he said. "Those things have all come together to cause the glacier to push forward.
"This isn't particularly unusual; it's just that in general glaciers are retreating around the world. People find this unusual because of the general stories of global warming."
Mellsop said a change in weather had both an immediate and longer-term effect on the glacier, which is visited by 60,000 people a year. In the short term, cooler temperatures slow down melting and snow increases the flow-rate.
"Beyond that, there's also a downstream effect. If you have heavy snowfalls one year, you're likely to get increased volumes of ice coming down the glacier three-to-five years later."
Mellsop said the 11 kilometer-long glacier was steeper than most, and was therefore "very, very sensitive to climate change."
Until the end of the 20th century the glacier advanced for 15 years. Between 1999 and 2003 it retreated before recently starting to advance again.
Asked whether he thought the gloomier predictions of green activists were likely to bear out, Mellsop said "only if the people who are talking about climate are accurate."
New Zealand climatologist Dr Jim Salinger said glaciers like Franz Josef were "very dynamic" and responded quickly to temperature and precipitation.
The current advance, when viewed in the long-term, would likely be a short-term event, he said.
"Once climate continues to warm during the 21st century I would expect to see retreat again."
Salinger said the overall trend during the 20th century was one of retreat.
In 2002, Greenpeace declared that Franz Josef was a "global warming casualty."
"Warmer temperatures and altered snow and rain patterns from climate change are resulting in the retreat of glaciers the world over," a climate campaigner for the group said at the time.
Robbie Kelman made it clear where Greenpeace placed the blame for this: "Increased temperatures brought about by greenhouse polluting gases like methane and the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, are destroying glaciers. Unless we break our addiction to fossil fuels, we risk the wholesale destruction of glaciers."
No one denies that the Franz Josef glacier both advances and retreats and that weather patterns play a role, but problems arise when a link is drawn with claims that the world's climate is steadily and dangerously rising.
"Glaciers advance and retreat not only because of temperature but also because of precipitation," Prof. Chris de Freitas of the School of Geography and Environmental Science at Auckland University said Wednesday.
"Just because a glacier or group of glaciers is doing one thing or another -- whether advancing or retreating -- doesn't mean to say it's an indicator of global climate. It's an indicator of regional climate variability, and to link it to global climate change is absurd."
Pointing to another favorite argument of the activists, de Freitas said there was a small part of the Antarctic Peninsula that showed warming, and the current speculation was that this was a result of warming currents.
"But the vast majority of the Antarctic continent is actually cooling. To say that's an indicator of global cooling is as absurd as to say that's an indicator of global warming.
"It's an environmental condition that attracts attention, but to link it to global warming is such a leap that is shows what I would consider a naive or simple understanding of events."
He said the whole climate change debate had become "contaminated by speculation" by scientists, campaigners and journalists.
"If you stand back, the evidence suggests that we don't have catastrophic change on our hands. If anything, the evidence over the last 10 or 15 years suggests that the global climate system isn't as sensitive as some of us first thought to changes in greenhouse gases."
Climate change 'industry'
"Greenhouse gases" are pollutants like carbon dioxide which environmentalists say are causing the earth's temperature to increase.
The Kyoto Protocol, which comes into force on Wednesday, requires industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of these pollutants by specified amounts, before 2012. The U.S. and Australia are the only developed countries that have not joined.
De Freitas said what was lost on many ordinary people was the fact that Kyoto would be completely ineffective. "There's this false sense of confidence that we're actually making progress."
"The net effect of Kyoto on global atmospheric concentrations is too small to have an effect ... what avid Kyoto proponents say is it's a first step, it's conditioning the world for more significant steps in the future."
The Auckland academic is one of many around the world whom green campaigners have labeled "skeptics."
He prefers to call himself a climate change "agnostic" and has strong words for the other camp.
"The whole global warming issue has become very political. Even among scientists, there are people protecting their position ... or their funding, or their ideology.
"Science should be open-minded. Good science thrives on debate and discussion and not the reverse. What's happened is the reverse - you claim consensus and marginalize anyone who disagrees with the mainstream. That's very unscientific."
Beyond the scientists, de Freitas said, there were other vested interests.
"It's not just the scientists. It's everyone involved in the impacts, the policy people, the economists, there are whole bureaucracies .... It's a whole industry, you can't kill it off.
"People like myself who utter criticisms that slow this momentum down are considered outrageous. It's very hard for members of the public to get what I consider a useful perspective of the issue."
See earlier story:
Australia Resists Last-Ditch Calls to Ratify Kyoto (Feb. 15, 2005)
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