Australia’s wildfires are turning New Zealand’s glaciers red

As millions of acres burn in Australia, the smoke and ash have blanketed New Zealand's mountains

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One of my favorite parts about the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island is my proximity to glaciers. Growing up in suburban Virginia, I never really experienced mountains of this scale before – and now I’m hooked.

Living in Wanaka, the heart of the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and a peaceful lakeside mountain town, I’ve spent a lot of time in our neighboring national park – Mt. Aspiring.

Mount Aspiring National Park is a magical mix of remote high country wilderness, big mountains, and stunning river valleys. Home to over a hundred glaciers, it’s a place straight from the Lord of the Rings – literally. Every time I explore Mt. Aspiring, it takes my breath away.

But a new phenomenon has arrived in New Zealand – for the past couple of weeks, the smoke and dust from the unprecedented bushfires in Australia have arrived in New Zealand.

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

I was away from Wanaka when I started to see posts from all my Wanaka friends on social media about their cars coated with thick red dust. It seems the devastating effects of the immense wildfires in Australia have made their way here.

As hundreds of uncontrolled fires burn across New South Wales and the Queensland coastlines in Australia, the wind has carried the smoke, ash, and dust thousands of kilometers across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

For days our usually clear skies were hazy, a bizarre thing to witness.

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

As the sky turned an ominous yellow haze, the smoke blanketed towns all across the South Island before eventually clearing up a few days later as the winds changed.

We carried on with our normalcy and routines, luckily free from the horrors of fires (at present). But as I journeyed back into Mt. Aspiring National Park last Friday, I noticed something unusual.

Why did the glaciers appear to be red?

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

Hopping on a last-minute scenic helicopter flight with Wanaka Helicopters out to see the glaciers around Mt. Aspiring, I was fizzing with excitement as I piled into the front seat on one of those calm, spring mornings.

We’ve had a crazy amount of rain this springtime in Wanaka, so much rain in fact that the lake is high. Normally quite dry on this side of the mountains, everyone is worried the town might flood this week as more rain is on the way.

Right now is the perfect time for a scenic flight around Wanaka, and it’s definitely the most colorful time of year. The valleys are bright green with all of the rainfall, and there is still snow on the mountaintops. For photographers like me, we froth on these colors.

australia fire new zealand

As the snow melts and the mountains are pounded with massive rainfalls, hundreds of temporary waterfalls gush down from the glaciers in a scene out of a movie. It doesn’t look real.

Taking off from the Wanaka airport on a morning Amazing Aspiring scenic heli flight, conditions were just magical. No wind, blue skies, and warm air, spring was in the air, and I was itching to take in my favorite mountains again.

Zooming out over the town and down the iconic Matukituki Valley, I could see the river was pumping, and the lake was high, while the stunning peak of Mt. Aspiring twinkled in the distance.

And as we got closer and closer towards the first of the mighty glaciers, I pulled my sunglasses off to wipe them. Did I see things, or did the snow look, well, a bit red?

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

From far away, the glaciers looked almost dirty, a sooty look they often get at the end of a hot summer as the ice melts and rock tumbles down onto the ice in certain places. But it was springtime, and the snows were beginning to melt. What’s the deal?

Chatting with the pilot, I realized this phenomenon was tied to the raging wildfires plaguing the east coast of Australia. The recent westerlies brought a red haze and smoke across the pond here to New Zealand.

As the dust settled across the South Island, it coated our glaciers in a layer of red too.

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

How crazy is that?

While I’m no scientist, I wonder this layer of red will exist in the ice to tell the story of the bushfires in a thousand years? The same way we could see the ash layers from ancient volcanic eruptions around the world now?

Curious. Curious.

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

As a frequent visitor to Mt. Aspiring, and flying as often as I can around these big mountains I call home, it was unusual and exciting to see something rare and different. How crazy is it that we can see the impact of fires in Australia here in New Zealand?!

It’s pretty remarkable to see the impact of the fires from so far away.

Our glaciers don’t need any more battles as they are already truly endangered; it puts the impact of climate change into even more stark reality we can’t ignore.

This will cause our glaciers to melt even faster due to the obstruction of the ice-albedo effect – where shiny glaciers reflect energy into space. Someone correct me, but this is how I understand it to work; the red dust is now covering the usually reflective glacial ice, causing the glaciers to melt faster. Ah, science!

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

Cue the anti-climate change propaganda. Though I would be heartily surprised if there were any non-science believers still on my blog.

The higher temperatures caused by climate change allows for more dryness and worse fire seasons in Australia especially. Greenhouse gas emissions have a direct impact on increased temperatures, which equates to increased dryness.

Climate change definitely makes bushfires worse.

australia fire new zealand

australia fire new zealand

Nothing really puts into perspective both the immensity of our mountains quite like a helicopter flight. It shows just how fragile they are. Especially when you see the impact of something so massive here in New Zealand.

I want everyone to be able to experience the joy and euphoria that comes from these wild spaces. I want to preserve our glaciers for generations to come. It breaks my heart to see the devastation both directly in Australia but also high on our precious mountains here in New Zealand.

Good luck to everyone working hard to stop this.

Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you experienced the effects of wildfires before? I’m curious, share if you don’t mind.

australia fire new zealand

Many thanks to Wanaka Helicopters for showing me around my favorite mountains. Like always, I’m keeping it real – as if you could expect less from me!

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29 Comments on “Australia’s wildfires are turning New Zealand’s glaciers red

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  1. Thank you for sharing these pictures! I remember back in 2007, there was a red tinge on the glaciers that the guides said was from Australia, but this is way more intense. I live in Northern California now, so wild fires are now a part of our yearly lives. The smoke that covered San Francisco last year for 2 weeks was insane. And the power shut offs we experienced this year were not fun.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful article Liz.
    The fires were scary. Summer is officially on December 1st in Australia so it’s not over yet.

    The impact that you explained it shows once again how much we are all connected and the importance to do our part to be the custodians of Planet Earth.

  3. It’s amazing that the wildfires in Australia are getting there and the effect in the glaciers but not unbelievable, remember Eyjafjallajökull all over Europe? Also the ashes of Villarica volcano arrive in Uruguay, quite a trip!

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