The Heat Is Online

Melting Alps Force Redrawing of Italian-Swiss Border

Shrinking Glaciers Redraw Europe's Borders, May 8, 2009


Global warming is shrinking Europe's alpine glaciers with such dramatic acceleration that Italy and Switzerland must now redraw their mountain borders, says a proposed law approved by the lower house of the Italian parliament at the end of April.


Running for 463 miles, mostly along the arc of the Alps,  the demarcation line between Italy and Switzerland has been fixed since 1861, when Italy became a unified state.


In 1941, a convention between the two countries defined as criteria for border demarcation the ridge crest of the glaciers. Since then, the border has been occasionally modified, with the biggest change occurring in the 1970s when the Switzerland-Italy highway was built.


More radical changes are needed now, according to the Italian Military Geographic Institute and Switzerland's Office of Topography.


Experts from both countries concluded that the surface of area of the "cryosphere," the ice-covered zone of glaciers, snow cover and permafrost, has been shrinking dramatically for the past five years.

Measurements taken at the Alps' Monte Rosa massif, which features nine glaciers, showed that glacier melting has moved the border a few feet in some areas and hundreds of feet in others.

"In one case, in the heart of the ski area of Zermatt, at Furggsattel, the border has shifted from 100 to 150 meters [328 to 492 feet], over a length of about one kilometer [0.6 miles]," Daniel Gutknecht, responsible for the coordination of national borders at Switzerland's Office of Topography, told Discovery News.

Both countries are ready to acknowledge the radical influence of climate change on their borders. But while in Switzerland no new law is required to make the changes, Italy requires border changes to be ratified by law.

Since the affected demarcation line runs through uninhabited peaks 13,000 feet above sea level, the measure would not force changes in citizenship.

According to Franco Narducci, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the opposition Democratic Party, the Italian-Swiss change of borders will be viewed as an example by other countries. Similar agreements will be made with Austria and France, he said.

"In the past, a frontier change was equal to war. Now global warming has made countries agree to a new concept of demarcation line, the mobile border," Narducci said, presenting the draft law to the lower house of the parliament.

The idea is to create a more realistic demarcation line, taking into account the melting glaciers. Experts from both countries will survey the border at regular intervals, making changes when necessary.

"We will proceed to new measurements every two or three years, but we hope that no update will be needed for the next 50 years," Gutknecht said.

In the worst case scenario -- that the glaciers disappear altogether -- the countries agreed that the border will coincide with rock.

"To lighten the climate, we can say that rocks are patriotic and faithful through the centuries," Fabio Evagelisti, of the opposition party the Italy of Principles, concluded.

The draft legislation is expected to be approved in coming months by the Senate.