Southern Alps

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Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana
South Island.jpg
Snow highlights the mountain range in this satellite image
Highest point
Peak Aoraki / Mount Cook
Elevation 3,724 m (12,218 ft)
Coordinates 43°35′44.69″S170°8′27.75″E / 43.5957472°S 170.1410417°E / -43.5957472; 170.1410417
Length500 km (310 mi)
Location South Island, New Zealand
Range coordinates 43°30′S170°30′E / 43.500°S 170.500°E / -43.500; 170.500
Southern Alps in winter Southern Alps in Winter.jpg
Southern Alps in winter

The Southern Alps (Māori : Kā Tiritiri o te Moana; officially Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana) [1] are a mountain range extending along much of the length of New Zealand's South Island, reaching its greatest elevations near the range's western side. The name "Southern Alps" generally refers to the entire range, although separate names are given to many of the smaller ranges that form part of it.


The range includes the South Island's Main Divide, which separates the water catchments of the more heavily populated eastern side of the island from those on the west coast. [2] Politically, the Main Divide forms the boundary between the Marlborough, Canterbury and Otago regions to the southeast and the Tasman and West Coast regions to the northwest.


The Māori name of the range is Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, meaning "the Mirage of the Ocean". [1]

The English explorer James Cook bestowed the name Southern Alps on 23 March 1770, admiring their "prodigious height". [3] They had previously been noted by Abel Tasman in 1642, whose description of the South Island's west coast is often translated as "a land uplifted high". [4]

Following the passage of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, the official name of the range was updated to Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. [5]


View of the western Southern Alps from State Highway 6 near Hari Hari, Westland Mountains in New Zealand.jpg
View of the western Southern Alps from State Highway 6 near Hari Hari, Westland

The Southern Alps run approximately 500 km [6] northeast to southwest. Its tallest peak is Aoraki / Mount Cook, the highest point in New Zealand at 3,724 metres (12,218 ft). The Southern Alps include sixteen other points that exceed 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) in height (see NZ mountains by height). The mountain ranges are bisected by glacial valleys, many of which are infilled with glacial lakes on the eastern side including Lake Coleridge in the north and Lake Wakatipu in Otago in the south. According to an inventory conducted in the late 1970s, the Southern Alps contained over 3,000 glaciers larger than one hectare, [7] the longest of which – the Tasman Glacier – is 23.5 kilometres (14.6 mi) in length which has retreated from a recent maximum of 29 kilometres (18 mi) in the 1960s. [8] [9]

Settlements include Maruia Springs, a spa near Lewis Pass, the town of Arthur's Pass, and Mount Cook Village.

Major crossings of the Southern Alps in the New Zealand road network include Lewis Pass (SH 7), Arthur's Pass (SH 73), Haast Pass (SH 6), and the road to Milford Sound (SH 94).


New Zealand has a humid maritime, temperate climate with the Southern Alps lying perpendicular to the prevailing westerly flow of air. Annual precipitation varies greatly across the range, from 3,000 millimetres (120 in) at the West Coast, 15,000 millimetres (590 in) close to the Main Divide, to 1,000 millimetres (39 in)30 kilometres (19 mi) east of the Main Divide. [10] This high precipitation aids the growth of glaciers above the Snow line. Large glaciers and snowfields can be found west of or on the Main Divide, with smaller glaciers farther east (See Glaciers of New Zealand).

Because of its orientation perpendicular to the prevailing westerly winds, the range creates excellent wave soaring conditions for glider pilots. The town of Omarama, in the lee of the mountains, has gained an international reputation for its gliding conditions. The prevailing westerlies also create a weather pattern known as the Nor'west arch , in which moist air is pushed up over the mountains, forming an arch of cloud in an otherwise blue sky. This weather pattern is frequently visible in summer across Canterbury and North Otago. The 'Nor'wester' is a foehn wind similar to the Chinook of Canada, where mountain ranges in the path of prevailing moisture laden winds force air upwards, thus cooling the air and condensing the moisture to rain, producing hot dry winds in the descending air lee of the mountains.


View of Aoraki / Mount Cook, the highest peak, from the Hooker Valley Track Mount Cook 2.jpg
View of Aoraki / Mount Cook, the highest peak, from the Hooker Valley Track
Shaded and colored image from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission--shows an elevation model of New Zealand's Alpine Fault running about 500 km (300 mi) long. The escarpment is flanked by a chain of hills squeezed between the fault and the mountains of the Southern Alps. Northeast is towards the top. Alpine Fault SRTM (vertical).jpg
Shaded and colored image from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission—shows an elevation model of New Zealand's Alpine Fault running about 500 km (300 mi) long. The escarpment is flanked by a chain of hills squeezed between the fault and the mountains of the Southern Alps. Northeast is towards the top.

The Southern Alps lie along a geological plate boundary, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, with the Pacific Plate to the southeast pushing westward and colliding with the northward-moving Indo-Australian Plate to the northwest. [11] Over the last 45 million years, the collision has pushed up a 20 km thickness of rocks on the Pacific Plate to form the Alps, although much of this has been eroded away. Uplift has been most rapid during the last 5 million years, and the mountains continue to be raised today by tectonic pressure, causing earthquakes on the Alpine Fault and other nearby faults. Despite the substantial uplift, most of the relative motion along the Alpine Fault is transverse, not vertical. [12] However, significant dip-slip occurs on the plate boundary to the north and east of the North Island, in the Hikurangi Trench and Kermadec Trench. The transfer of motion from strike-slip on the Alpine Fault to dip-slip motion at these subduction zones to the north creates the Marlborough Fault System, which has resulted in significant uplift in the region.

In 2017 a large international team of scientists reported they had discovered beneath Whataroa, a small township on the Alpine Fault, "extreme" hydrothermal activity which "could be commercially very significant". [13] [14]


The mountains are rich in flora with about 25% of the country's plant species being found above the treeline in alpine plant habitats and grassland with mountain beech forest at lower elevations (of the eastern side but not in Westland). The cold windswept slopes above the treeline are covered with areas of fellfield. To the east, the Alps descend to the Canterbury-Otago tussock grasslands. Plants adapted to the alpine conditions include woody shrubs like Hebe , Dracophyllum , and Coprosma , the conifer snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis) and Carex sedge grasses. [15]


Wildlife of the mountains includes the endemic rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris). There are also a number of endemic insects adapted to these high altitudes especially flies, moths, beetles, and bees. The beech forests of the lower elevations are important habitat for two birds; the great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii) and the South Island kākā (Nestor meridionalis meridionalis). The Kea can be found in the forested foothills as well as higher, colder elevations. It is the world's only alpine parrot, and was once hunted as a pest.

Threats and preservation

The mountains are inaccessible and retain their natural vegetation. A large proportion of the range is well protected as part of various national parks, notably the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park, and Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park or protected areas such as Lake Sumner Forest Park. Indigenous plant life is affected by introduced animals such as red deer (Cervus elaphus), chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), and Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) all of which have at times been targeted for culling, while the birds and reptiles are vulnerable to introduced predators.

Panoramic view

Southern Alps from Hamilton Peak.jpg
Panoramic winter view from the summit of Hamilton Peak in the Craigieburn Range.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aoraki / Mount Cook</span> Mountain in New Zealand

Aoraki / Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. Its height, as of 2014, is listed as 3,724 metres. It sits in the Southern Alps, the mountain range that runs the length of the South Island. A popular tourist destination, it is also a favourite challenge for mountain climbers. Aoraki / Mount Cook consists of three summits: from south to north, the Low Peak, the Middle Peak and the High Peak. The summits lie slightly south and east of the main divide of the Southern Alps, with the Tasman Glacier to the east and the Hooker Glacier to the southwest. Mount Cook is ranked 10th by topographic isolation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park</span> Park in New Zealand

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is in the South Island of New Zealand. Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, and the eponymous village lie within the park. The area was gazetted as a national park in October 1953 and consists of reserves that were established as early as 1887 to protect the area's significant vegetation and landscape.

The Adams River is in the South Island of New Zealand. The headwaters are on the western side of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. It flows into the Lambert River just before its confluence with the Wanganui River.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cook River / Weheka</span> River in the South Island of New Zealand

The Cook River / Weheka is in the South Island of New Zealand. The headwaters are from the La Perouse Glacier on the western flanks of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, and it flows west, then northeast, then northwest and into the Tasman Sea. Its tributaries include the Balfour River, fed by Balfour Glacier, and the Fox River, fed by Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe. Much of the river lies within the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. The river was renamed from Cook River to Cook River / Weheka as a result of the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ōtira River</span> River in South Island of New Zealand

The Ōtira River is located in the central South Island of New Zealand. It rises on the slopes of Mount Rolleston in the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, and flows north for 20 kilometres (12 mi), passing through the town of Otira before joining the Taramakau River. The Taramakau's outflow is into the Tasman Sea, 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of Greymouth.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Westland Tai Poutini National Park</span> National park in New Zealand

Westland Tai Poutini National Park is a national park located on the western coast of New Zealand's South Island. Established in 1960 as Westland National Park to commemorate the centenary of the European settlement of Westland District, it covers 1,320 square kilometres of largely mountainous terrain and forest. The park borders the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park along the Main Divide of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, and includes many of the West Coast's glaciers, most notably including the Fox / Te Moeka o Tuawe and Franz Josef / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere glaciers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">South Canterbury</span>

South Canterbury is the area of the Canterbury Region of the South Island of New Zealand bounded by the Rangitata River in the north and the Waitaki River to the south. The Pacific Ocean and ridge of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana form natural boundaries to the east and west respectively. Though the exact boundaries of the region have never been formalised, the term is used for a variety of government agencies and other entities. It is one of four traditional sub-regions of Canterbury, along with Mid Canterbury, North Canterbury, and Christchurch city.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fox Glacier (town)</span> Town in the West Coast Region of New Zealand

Fox Glacier, called Weheka until the 1940s, is a village on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The village is close to the eponymous Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geology of New Zealand</span> Overview of the geology of New Zealand

The geology of New Zealand is noted for its volcanic activity, earthquakes and geothermal areas because of its position on the boundary of the Australian Plate and Pacific Plates. New Zealand is part of Zealandia, a microcontinent nearly half the size of Australia that broke away from the Gondwanan supercontinent about 83 million years ago. New Zealand's early separation from other landmasses and subsequent evolution have created a unique fossil record and modern ecology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rees River</span> River in New Zealand

The Rees River is a headwater tributary of the Clutha River / Mata-Au that drains eastward of the main divide of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana in New Zealand. The river runs 41 km, drains an area of 406 km2, and discharges into the head of Lake Wakatipu at Glenorchy. Bound by the Richardson (Whakaari) Mountains to the east and the Forbes Mountains to the west, its snow-covered headwaters rise above 2000 m.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geology of the Canterbury Region</span> Overview of the geology of Canterbury, New Zealand

Canterbury in New Zealand is the portion of the South Island to the east of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, from the Waiau Uwha River in the north, to the Waitaki River in the south.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arrowsmith Range</span>

The Arrowsmith Range is a mountain range in the South Island of New Zealand. The range runs from southwest to northeast, parallel to the main ranges of the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. At the northeastern end, the range terminates at Jagged Peak, whence a ridge connects to the Jollie Range. The lower Potts Range is a continuation at the southwestern end of the range. The highest point on the range is Mount Arrowsmith.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Humboldt Mountains (New Zealand)</span> Range of mountains in the Southern Alps of New Zealand

The Humboldt Mountains or Humboldt Range are one of the many ranges which make up the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana in the South Island of New Zealand. They lie to the northwest of Lake Wakatipu in the Otago Region. Parts of the range lie within Fiordland National Park, and they form the southern extremity of Mount Aspiring National Park. The range was named by early explorer James McKerrow, and like many geographic features worldwide, it was named in honour of notable scientist Alexander von Humboldt.

Mount Whitcombe is a mountain in New Zealand's Southern Alps, rising to a height of 2,650 metres (8,690 ft).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marmaduke Dixon (mountaineer)</span> New Zealand mountaineer

Marmaduke John Dixon, known as Marmaduke or Duke Dixon, was a New Zealand farmer and mountaineer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mount Cook Range</span> Mountain range in New Zealand

Mount Cook Range is an offshoot range of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. The range forks from the Southern Alps at the Green Saddle and descends towards Lake Pukaki, encompassing Aoraki / Mount Cook and standing adjacent to the Tasman Glacier.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hector Mountains</span> Mountain range in New Zealand

The Tapuae-o-Uenuku / Hector Mountains are a mountain range in the New Zealand region of Otago, near the resort town of Queenstown and just south of the more famous Remarkables. For most of its length, the mountains run adjacent to the southern reaches of Lake Wakatipu, before extending approximately 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) further south, past the glacial moraine at Kingston on the southern end of the lake. On their eastern side, the mountains mark the edge of the Nevis valley, a largely tussocked area which saw significant activity during the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s. Historically, the mountains were an important mahinga kai for Ngāi Tahu and other local Māori iwi, who used the area to hunt for weka and gather tikumu while visiting the region.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of the South Island</span> Overview of the Geography of South Island

The South Island, with an area of 150,437 km2 (58,084 sq mi), is the largest landmass of New Zealand; it contains about one-quarter of the New Zealand population and is the world's 12th-largest island. It is divided along its length by the Southern Alps, the highest peak of which is Aoraki / Mount Cook at 3,724 metres (12,218 ft), making it 9th-highest island, with the high Kaikōura Ranges to the northeast. There are eighteen peaks of more than 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) in the South Island. The east side of the island is home to the Canterbury Plains while the West Coast is famous for its rough coastlines such as Fiordland, a very high proportion of native bush, and Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The dramatic landscape of the South Island has made it a popular location for the production of several films, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It lies at similar latitudes to Tasmania, and parts of Patagonia in South America.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Garden of Eden Ice Plateau</span> Glacier in the Southern Alps, New Zealand

The Garden of Eden Ice Plateau is a large ice field on the western side of New Zealand's Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. At over 9 km (5.6 mi) long, the Garden of Eden is one of the largest ice fields in New Zealand, along with the equally-sized Garden of Allah Ice Field which sits just to the north. The ice field is one of many geographic features in the area between the main divide of the Southern Alps and the Adams Range which share biblical names, a convention first established by the earliest explorers to the area. The Garden's remote location and difficult conditions make research difficult, especially with restrictions on helicopter landings imposed through the designation of the area as Adams Wilderness Area in 2003. Despite this, the ice plateau has been a popular destination for tramping groups for over 80 years, with access routes from both coasts and easily reachable areas once on the plateau itself.

<i>Te Kopikopiko o te Waka</i> Scenic viewing point in New Zealand

Te Kopikopiko o te Waka, also known as Peak View Lookout or Fox Glacier View Point, is a scenic viewing point and cultural heritage site located nine kilometres (5.6 mi) to the west of the Fox Glacier township in the South Island of New Zealand. It provides panoramic views of Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana.


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