Melting glaciers – the ice gives up its secrets
Throughout the world, mountain glaciers are disappearing at an accelerating pace, due to climate change, losing about 2% of their volume every year. On July 9, 2022, 11 people on a hiking trail in Italy died, when a glacier collapsed in the Alps, during a heatwave. This year, the Alps are on track to lose the most ice in 60 years of record keeping, due to prolonged high summer temperatures and reduced winter snow cover.
As the ice melts, it gives up its grisly secrets. Two bodies have been discovered in the Alps this year, and the wreckage of a light aircraft, which crashed in 1968. Since 1925, 280 people have been listed as missing in the Alps. A husband and wife went missing in Switzerland in 1942. Their bodies were found in 2016. Police speculated that they must have fallen down a crevasse, when hiking to a high Alpine pasture to milk their cows. With the ice melting at a metre a year, more bodies will emerge.
The White War
During the first World War, Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops fought in the ‘white war’, at an altitude of up to 12,000 ft, and temperatures as low as -30 C. Conditions were so bad, the enemy took second place, the real adversary being nature itself. Engineers built an entire ‘ice city’ – a complex of tunnels, dormitories and storerooms, dug out of the bowels of the glacier.
Only about one third of the 150,000 men who died in the white war were killed in battle. The majority succumbed to the cold, or were killed in avalanches. As the glacier melts, an increasing number of corpses and artefacts are emerging from the icy tomb.
But, the ice is also revealing much more ancient secrets, which have excited the interest of archaeologists and anthropologists. The most famous was the discovery by two German tourists in September 1991, of the 3,300 year old mummified remains of a man at an altitude of 10,530 ft in the Ötztal Alps, near the border of Italy and Austria. Otzi, as he was christened, lived in the Copper Age, between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. He has become the most intensively studied body in history of science. His possessions included a copper knife, quiver, bow and arrows. His clothes were made from a variety of leathers, including a bearskin hat, and his broad soled boots, ideal for snowy conditions, were so well made, that a master cobbler who studied them, said that they could only have been made by a specialist craftsman, indicating that he came from a more sophisticaled society than previously thought.
Scientists also found that he had eaten two hours before he died, and had had another meal six hours earlier. He had a surprisingly good diet, including chamois, ibex, red deer, wheat, sloes and herbs. He was lactose intolerant, had whipworm infection, and was also infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. His ancestors came from Sardinia or Corsica. It was initially believed that he had died of exposure but, in 2001, x-rays revealed an arrow head beneath his left shoulder which would have severed an artery, leading to death from blood loss. Since 1998, Otzi has been on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Italy.
Glacial archaeology is a relatively new development in the field, but as the glaciers around the world recede, scientists are rushing to find the ancient artefacts that emerge from under the ice. Organic material has to be recovered quickly, and preserved, or it will quickly degrade once free from the ice. Many ancient artefacts have been recovered from North America, Mongolia and Europe. In Norway, the Glacier Archaeology Program was initiated in 2011, and over 3,000 finds have been made, including Bronze Age leather shoes from 1,300 BC, a woollen tunic from AD 230-390, horse snowshoes, and skis, with their strapping intact, from the Viking era, around AD 700.
One wonders what other discoveries lie in store. The last Ice Age began 115,000 years ago. Prior to this there was the Eemian interglacial period, which was warmer than the current Holocene period. Hippopotamus swam in the Thames. It’s possible that there are mountain caves, covered by ice, which have not seen the light of day since the Eemian period. This was long before modern man emerged from Africa, when Neanderthal man lived in Europe and Asia. If there are such caves, waiting to emerge from the ice, they will be in pristine condition, and who knows what they might contain?
Wullie Davidson, September, 2022
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