Climate Change Is Shifting the Border Between Italy and Austria

The border has shifted dramatically. Although it is natural for glaciers to slide, the creep of global warming has melted it more rapidly than anyone could have foreseen. Eventually, the geo-defined frontier will likely disappear.

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Jun 27 2016, 12:00am

Grafferner Glacier defines part of the border between Italy and Austria. The GPS tracking devices monitor the glacier's melt and, in turn, that border's movement. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

In 1991, two German hikers on Italy's northern border with Austria came across a shriveled brown body facedown in the snow. Assuming the corpse belonged to an unlucky mountaineer, Erika and Helmut Simon took a photograph and continued trekking to their bed and breakfast in the Ötztal Alps, where they told their host about the discovery.

It took a team of forensic scientists four days to prise the body from the ice. When they eventually freed it, bits of leather, string, and hay emerged in the meltwater. The scientists collected the debris, zipped the corpse up in a body bag, and flew it by helicopter to nearby Vent, Austria, where it was put into a wooden coffin and driven by hearse to the Institute of Legal Medicine in Innsbruck.

Two days later, the archeologist Konrad Spindler noticed the unusual scraps gathered at the scene in a plastic bag: a piece of wood, taken from the body's right hand, and a four-inch-long copper blade. This was no lost hiker, but a 5,000-year-old man; his ax revealed that the Simons had discovered one of the best-preserved mummies in history.

In the media deluge that followed, a Viennese journalist dubbed the cadaver Ötzi after the nearby valley on the Austrian side of the border, but Italian authorities insisted he had been unearthed in their territory, instead calling him L'Uomo venuto dal ghiaccio ("The Iceman"). The borderline, mapped along the glaciers of Mt. Similaun—a giant ice sheet that can slide more than 30 feet per year—made it almost impossible to determine who owned the mummy. The next month, the border was re-surveyed for the first time since its post-WWI formation: The body had been discovered 300 feet into Italy.

Today, that border has shifted dramatically. It is natural for glaciers to slide, but the creep of global warming has melted it more rapidly than anyone could have foreseen. Eventually, the geo-defined frontier will likely disappear. In April 2016, 25 years after Ötzi's discovery, a team of geologists, geophysicists, and designers embarked on an expedition to install GPS sensors to record the border in real time and gather information about Grafferner glacier, situated at the foot of Mt. Similaun, the tiny size of which makes it an accurate barometer of climate change. I went along.

It took the helicopter three trips to get all 13 of us to Grafferner. Swaddled in gear to protect us from the 14-degree chill, we clambered in four or five at a time, ascending 11,000 feet above sea level to the plateau, a white plain bounded by the jagged peaks of the Dolomites mountain range. After the pilot dropped 660 pounds of equipment in a net from the helicopter's belly, he left us there for nine hours.

The team split in half to install the border-mapping devices, dragging the gear in makeshift trolleys that sliced our tracks through the snow. Each device—containing sensors, a battery pack, and heating system to function in subzero conditions—had to be fixed to the ice. In the meantime, two of the geophysicists, Roberto Francese and Aldino Bondesan, began digging a three-foot-deep hole to get past the surface snow to the actual glacier, where they would place a seismometer (which reads depth via vibrations) on the ice, to determine how much Grafferner had melted in the past year. "If it continues like this," Francese sighed, "this glacier could be gone in twenty years."

"Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn't give a shit." —Marco Ferrari

It is normal for a portion of a glacier to melt and refreeze seasonally and to shift slightly each year. But in the past three decades, rising temperatures have brought a worryingly rapid thaw, particularly tangible on small glaciers like Grafferner. "In one century, we have lost seventy percent of the glaciated surface," said Bondesan, a coordinator for the Italian Glaciological Committee. "Scientists don't have enough information to understand if this is a temporary change—induced by man, that's quite sure—or just a fluctuation that is going to recover in ten or one hundred years," he said, his mustache crusted with ice and remnants of the speck we ate for breakfast at Pension Leithof in Vernago, a European skiing destination on the Italian side of the valley.

Leithof is one of the smaller hotels servicing the Dolomites, and despite being in an area that just suffered the hottest February on record, its business has yet to be affected. But manager Rainer Alois said the changes are cause for concern. At what is usually the coldest time of the year, in mid-January, artificial flakes were still being pumped onto the slopes. "The glacier retreated a lot during the last years, you can tell by the eye," Alois told me. "I am already quite old. When I die, the glacier will still be there. But for younger people, it's going to be a big problem."

The change devastated local alpine guide Robert Ciatti. "I miss the glacier how it was when I started climbing it. For me, the glacier is life. Now when I see it in the summer, you can see the rocks under the ice, it is all dirty—the saddest thing."

The GPS sensors sit on top of the glacier, measuring its coordinates as it slides. A member of the Italian Glaciological Committee said, "In one century, we have lost seventy percent of the glaciated surface."

Bondesan explained, however, that it's more worrisome to consider the disappearance of our natural reservoirs than the end to an alpine sport. Glaciers store 69 percent of the world's freshwater—our primary resource on Earth. Couple that with the more than 200-foot sea-level rise, and you have a domino effect of global crises. "The terrifying thing," added Stefano Picotti from the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics (OGS), who was also on the trip, is that "this experiment has never been done in nature."

"Climate change is happening so fast and on such a huge scale that it's forcing us to change the borders of a country," said head of the mapping expedition, Marco Ferrari. While the border we were on had been monitored since the 1919 Treaty of St. Germain, Ferrari's project, Italian Limes ("boundaries" in Latin), is the first time that it has been tracked consistently and accurately. The borders of a country are "something we always consider as stable, as a political device, the foundation of the modern state, the most sacred thing, but this huge natural transformation makes clear how disruptive and alarming these changes are," he said. "Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn't give a shit."


While an ambling boundary on a glacier, five and a half hours' walk from the nearest town and in a relatively peaceful part of Europe, may not seem like the stuff of heated political discourse, there has always been tension between Austrians and Italians in the South Tyrol region, which was handed back to Italy after WWII. German-speaking vandals often steal the Italian-language signs marking the Similaun hiking trails in protest.

On our way home, we stopped in the town of Bolzano, where a Mussolini-era Victory Gate recalls the city's Fascist heritage. The government fenced off the 62-foot-wide monument, still an epicenter of friction between the Italian- and German-speaking communities, to protect it from vandalism.

We have killed 10 percent of the world's coral reefs, endangered a third of amphibian species, created an oceanic garbage patch twice the size of the United States, and are at risk of losing our primary freshwater resource: the glaciers.

Over a drunken dinner, Italian resident and design lecturer at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano Simone Simonelli told me that cultural and attitudinal tensions still bubbled beneath the surface of the placid town. Strolling through Bolzano that day, Simonelli had come across a small right-wing anti-migrant protest. The following afternoon, Austrian police clashed with 500 Italian activists calling for a more welcoming attitude to refugees at the Brenner Pass border, where in recent months thousands of migrants have tried to come through under Europe's Schengen Agreement open-border policy. By the end of the month, the Austrian government had begun construction of a barbed-wire fence to curb the influx.

In recent years, a network of seemingly dormant frontiers has become what Ferrari describes as "a twenty-first-century psychosis" of police checks, soldiers, walls, refugee camps, and displaced people. "Cartography is used as a political tool to justify borders, but natural borders are just geometry—as humans, we give them political value," he said. "Schengen, which we consider a conquest of modern Europe, is just a political agreement that can change overnight. Borders are completely artificial. In the same way we define them, we can also say they shouldn't be there."

A helicopter departs after dropping a team of scientists on a glacier at the foot of Mt. Similaun. The group installed GPS sensors that record the glacier's movement in real time.

Eighteen years ago, the Austrians returned Ötzi to the Italian authorities after they completed their examinations. Now he rests in a humidified box at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where you can peer at his gaunt, wet body through double-glazed glass. Moments before his death, the Iceman had dined on grains and ibex meat. His ax—crafted of the newly discovered metal that defined the era as the Copper Age—indicates Ötzi was probably a man of status. Only the wealthy could afford such luxury items. They too built settlements and fortresses.

From certain angles, we haven't come that far in 3,000 years—the well-off attempting to keep the vulnerable out; the difference is whether our shared Earth can continue to sustain us. Our era has become commonly termed the "Anthropocene," an unprecedented epoch in which humans have altered the planet forever. We have killed 10 percent of the world's coral reefs, endangered a third of amphibian species, created an oceanic garbage patch twice the size of the United States, and are at risk of losing our primary freshwater resource: the glaciers. We have changed far more than borders.

"There are some mechanisms that are proposed to explain how the Earth can react and revive itself in a way," said Bondesan. For now, the best solution to glacier melt—and quite a feeble one, according to the geophysicists—is to cover the ice with a sort of white sheet that reflects the sun. This becomes particularly necessary when hot winds blow north from the Sahara Desert in Africa, forming a dark blanket over the Alps, which triples the melting rate in the already fragile region.

The summer before Ötzi's discovery, these dust storms receded the ice just enough to expose the mummy's body. The day we returned to Similaun, ocher sand again trespassed the blindingly white landscape. Unlike the people from that continent, sand can travel thousands of miles without regard for frontiers. The windswept glacier, with its dune-like peaks, doesn't look all that different. Perhaps it is an omen, because "without the glaciers," said Francese, "the Alps would probably be a sort of desert."

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

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