Home Artifacts Europe’s melting glaciers reveal their secrets too quickly

Europe’s melting glaciers reveal their secrets too quickly



FORCLE GLACIER, Switzerland – At around 8,000 feet above sea level, Switzerland’s Forcle Glacier has for thousands of years been buried deep in a frigid mountain valley dominated by some of Europe’s highest peaks.

To the first human hunters who scaled these heights, it must have seemed as if its snow-covered body of ice would forever keep the valley locked in its frozen grip. Anything that got lost on these rocks – iron spears, leather shoes or rudimentary straps – was swallowed up by the ice, never to reappear.

But when Swiss archaeologist Romain Andenmatten arrived here one day in recent September, the ground was so muddy and wet that his shoes sank deep into it. On the ground before him lay a leather thong, lined with sparkling ice crystals, its holes filled with fine gravel.

The last time a human held it was over 1,000 years ago.

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As climate change melts glaciers at unprecedented rates, such ancient artifacts are emerging from shrinking sheets of ice around the world. For archaeologists, this is both a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a daunting task, as rapid global warming exposes objects faster than they can be saved.

When artifacts emerge from the ice after decades or centuries, many are so well preserved that they appear to have been frozen hours earlier. European researchers recently grew plants from 100-year-old seeds that had been discovered “frozen in time” in a World War I bunker on the Italian-Swiss border. Some of the most scientifically valuable discoveries are organic, such as wood and leather, which would normally decay without the ice.

But because of the rate at which Earth’s glaciers are melting – temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Alps as elsewhere – researchers fear there won’t be enough time. Large portions of the collective history of around a third of the world’s population in mountain areas “is melting away”, said archaeologist Marcel Cornelissen.

The emergence of an object from the ice triggers a race to preserve it before it decays. “The mountains are starting to move,” said Regula Gubler, a Swiss archaeologist.

A “hurricane” of melting

The sound of falling rocks echoed through the valley of the Forcle Glacier as Andenmatten and a colleague, archeology student Tristan Allegro, 25, slowly crossed the ice covered in a thin layer of dark dust, rocks and earth.

The only other noise in these heights was the hum of commercial jets leaving their white trails in the cloudless sky.

“This glacier once ran through the whole valley,” Andenmatten said, pointing to a barren, ice-free basin ahead of him. But in the next 10 or 20 years, the whole Forcle glacier could disappear.

This year alone, Swiss glaciers have lost 6% of their ice, said glaciologist Matthias Huss, who compares the destructive force of this summer’s heat waves to an Alpine “hurricane.”

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“We’ve seen an increase in the frequency of years with very heavy melting over the past few decades,” he said. “But what we’ve seen this summer is really completely different from all those previous extreme years.”

This year’s ice loss is so much higher than historical averages that in theory it should have been “virtually impossible”.

The extra melt may have prevented some of Europe’s mighty rivers from drying up during the cascading heat waves this year. But once a critical threshold of melting is crossed in the future, the lack of water from glaciers will be felt across the continent.

Ice is “a walking dead man,” said Lars Holger Pilo, a Norwegian archaeologist.

A retreat of the glaciers is not necessarily against nature. They always grew during extremely cold spells and shrank when those cold spells ended. Some natural melting was expected in Europe after the end of the last “little ice age” in the 19th century.

But as carbon dioxide emissions rose over the past century, human factors began accelerating what was supposed to be a gradual natural retreat – and turned the ice sheets and glaciers into sites for archaeological investigation and sometimes criminal.

As the melting accelerated in the early 1990s, the first spectacular discoveries aroused the interest of researchers.

In late summer 1991, two German hikers on the Italian-Austrian border found the frozen body of a man who was originally thought to be the victim of a recent accident. He later became known as Ötzi, or “Iceman” – a 5,000-year-old murder victim who had been killed with an arrow and preserved in ice.

Over the following decades, Ötzi became perhaps the most carefully studied body in history, allowing researchers to draw conclusions about historical climates, early human habits, and genetics.

The more the ice melts, the further archaeologists are advancing into some of its oldest layers – and into the past.

“The finds have definitely aged,” said Pilo, the Norwegian researcher, who found artifacts that radiocarbon dating shows are thousands of years old.

Among the finds are a Swiss leather shoe over 3,500 years old and a 10,000-year-old alpine glacier mine where hunters once mined rock crystals to make arrowheads and other types of blades. In Norway, a 1,300-year-old ski, predating the Vikings, was so well preserved that scientists were able to reproduce a working copy of it and hit the slopes with it.

About half of all medieval or older ice discoveries in the world have been made in Norway, which has a particularly high accumulation of ice that does not move. Archaeologists prefer to search for artifacts in such deposits because, unlike glaciers, the lack of movement prevents the objects from being crushed and “spit out”, said Gubler, the Swiss scientist. In the Swiss Alps, the most promising discovery areas are the ice sheets and snowfields around the glaciers, not the glaciers themselves.

The findings so far may just be a glimpse of what might be found. Pilo and his colleagues from the Norwegian county of Innlandet have a list of about 150 potential sites that they haven’t been able to review yet.

For Pilo and many of his colleagues, the challenge is no longer to identify sites where discoveries are likely but prioritizing those most important to recovery.

“For every patch we find, there are probably dozens that go unnoticed and quietly disappear – and the cultural heritage embedded therein is out there in the August sun, rotting,” Nicholas said. Jarman, a US National Park Service archaeologist in New Mexico who uses much of his annual leave hunting for artifacts in glaciers.

“It’s a small reflection of the larger societal challenge we face,” he said. “Will I look back in 20 years, wishing I had done more?”

“I wonder if we are not too late”

In Switzerland, Andenmatten and his colleague hope that crowdsourcing can help them meet the challenge.

They launched a smartphone app last year that allows anyone to share photos and GPS coordinates of potential finds. It allows scientists to make an initial assessment of the importance of a discovery before embarking on a hike that can sometimes last several days.

Allegro, the archeology student, had used the app to alert the regional archeology authority when he made the first discoveries on the Le Forcle glacier this year. The office asked him to join the research team.

As the sun rose behind the mountains, he and Andenmatten put on UV masks and hats to protect themselves from the scorching rays of the sun. By the time they had taken off their coats, the stream from the glacier that was still covered in a thin layer of ice in the morning had turned into a bubbling stream of meltwater.

Equipped with a GPS receiver and a hammer, the two researchers scanned their surroundings, looking for anything that seemed out of place.

They didn’t have to search long. Within hours, their black plastic bags were filled with dozens of carved wooden objects and the leather strap.

Each time they decided it was time to begin their descent, the scientists came across a new artifact.

Discoveries in this part of Switzerland over the years have included carved wooden statues that probably date back more than 2,500 years to the Iron Age, a pistol and clothing believed to have belonged to a 16th century mercenary, and a pair of 3500 years old. of leather shoes.

But the influx of artifacts could suddenly stop one day.

Swiss researcher Gubler has hiked up Schnidejoch, a mountain pass about 9,000 feet above sea level, almost every year for the past decade and says it was an archaeological treasure chest.

But when Gubler returned this summer, she found all the ice was gone.

“It all happened very quickly,” she said.

Some researchers are seeing a marked drop in the number of discoveries, at least in some areas, as the ice fields begin to disappear.

“I wonder if we are not too late,” said archaeologist Cornelissen.

According to the researchers, working in such close proximity to some of the most visible effects of climate change can be daunting.

Jarman, the New Mexico-based researcher, says when he’s out in the field, it’s easy to focus on the task at hand. Because only a few weeks or even days each year offer weather suitable for exploration, being in the field leaves little time for reflection.

The hardest times tend to be those at home, when “the archaeological elation and excitement is tempered by this sober awareness,” Jarman said. “Like you’re witnessing the end of something.”