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Melting Glacier Shifts Swiss-Italy Border

Melting Glacier Swiss-Italy Border
Melting glacier has shifted the Swiss-Italy border at the Alps Credit: Leeshore1966 CC3 / Wikimedia Commons

As a result of a melting glacier in the Alps, the border between Italy and Switzerland has shifted, putting the location of an Italian mountain lodge in dispute.

The borderline in dispute runs along a drainage divide, the point at which meltwater will run down either side of the mountain towards one country or the other.

The Theodul Glacier’s retreat means the watershed has crept toward the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 11,417-foot Testa Grigia peak, and it’s gradually being swept underneath the building.

Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist on a recent visit to the refuge’s restaurant, was amazed! the menu is in Italian rather than German and priced in euros rather than Swiss francs.

At the counter, he ordered a slice of pie and asked: “So—are we in Switzerland or in Italy?”

Indeed, it was a question worth asking because the answer has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations that began in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year with the resolutions remaining a secret.

In 1984, when the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop, its forty beds and long wooden tables were entirely in Italian territory. But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically perched in southern Switzerland.

Melting Glacier Swiss-Italy Border
Plateau Rosa Cervino Credit: Tamer BUKE CC3 / Wikimedia Commons

Notably relying on tourism, the area has become a point of interest because it is located at the top of one of the world’s largest ski resorts, with a major new development including a cable car station being constructed a few meters away.

In November 2021 in Florence, an agreement was hammered out, but the outcome will only be revealed once it is attested by the Swiss government, which will not happen before 2023.

The chief border official at Switzerland’s national mapping agency Swisstopo, Alain Wicht said, “We agreed to split the difference.”

His job includes looking after the seven thousand boundary markers along landlocked Switzerland’s 1,200-mile (1,935km) border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Liechtenstein.

Wicht attended the negotiations, where both parties made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side came out winners, at least nobody lost,” he said.

Territorial contest at the Swiss – Italy Border

At the point where the Italian – Swiss border traverses the Alpine glaciers, the frontier follows the watershed line, but the Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010, exposing the rock underneath to the ice.

This altered the drainage divide and forced the two neighbors to redraw an approximately 100-meter-long stretch of their border.

Wicht said such adjustments were frequent and were generally settled by comparing readings by surveyors from the border countries without getting politicians involved.

He further said, “We are squabbling over territory that isn’t worth much,” and added that this “is the only place where we suddenly had a building involved,” giving “economic value” to the land.

“Due to the complex international situation,” his Italian counterparts declined to comment.

A former Swisstopo chief, Jean-Philippe Amstein said such disputes were typically resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equivalent surface area and value.

In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in obtaining a piece of the glacier,” he noted, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area.”

Amidst secrecy of the outcomes of the diplomatic discussions on the area, the 51-year-old Lucio Trucco, the refuge’s caretaker, has been told it will stay on Italian soil.

He courageously said, “The refuge remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” noting that “the menu is Italian, the wine is Italian, and the taxes are Italian.”

Due to years of delayed negotiations, the refuge’s renovation has not rolled out hampering villages on either side of the border to issue a building permit. Renovations will, therefore, not be completed in time for the scheduled opening of a new cable car up the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn mountain in late 2023.

While some mid-altitude resorts are preparing for the end of Alpine skiing due to global heating, skiing is possible throughout the summer on the Zermatt-Cervinia slopes even if such activities contribute to the glacier’s retreat.

“That’s why we have to enhance the area here because it will surely be the last one to die,” said Trucco.

Currently, the slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt, and on the Swisstopo’s maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border remains a dashed line as it cuts through the area.

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