High in the snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has been shifted by a melting glacier, putting the location of an Italian mountain refuge in question.
The boundary runs along a drainage divide — the point at which meltwater will flow to one country or the other on either side of the mountain.
But the Theodul Glacier’s retreat means the watershed has crept toward the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a visitor refuge near the 3,480-foot Testa Grigia peak — and it’s gradually sweeping under the building.
Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the mountain hut’s restaurant, as light pours in from outside.
The menu is in Italian, not German, and priced in Euros instead of Swiss Francs. Yet he orders a piece of cake at the counter and asks: ‘So… are we in Switzerland or Italy?’
It’s a question worth asking, as it has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations that began in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year, but the details remain secret.
Sleeping on the Swiss side
When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, the 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely on Italian soil.
But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically located in the south of Switzerland.
The problem has arisen because the area, which relies on tourism, is at the top of one of the world’s largest ski areas, with major new development including a cable car station being built a few meters away.
An agreement was signed in Florence in November 2021, but the outcome will not be revealed until the Swiss government approves it – which will not happen before 2023.
“We have agreed to split the difference,” Alain Wicht, chief border officer at Swisstopo, Switzerland’s national map agency, told AFP.
His job includes guarding the 7,000 border posts along Switzerland’s landlocked 1,935-kilometer border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.
Wicht attended the negotiations, with both sides making concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side came out victorious, at least no one lost,” he said.
Line in the snow
Where the Italian-Swiss border crosses Alpine glaciers, the border follows the watershed.
But the Theodul Glacier lost nearly a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010. That exposed the rock below to the ice, changing the watershed and forcing the two neighbors to redraw around a 100-meter stretch of their boundary.
Wicht said such adjustments were frequent and were generally solved by comparing measurements from surveyors from the border countries, without politicians being involved.
“We’re bickering over territory that isn’t worth much,” he said. But he added that this is “the only place where we suddenly had a building involved,” giving the land “economic value.”
His Italian colleagues declined to comment “because of the complex international situation”.
Former head of Swisstopo, Jean-Philippe Amstein, said such disputes are usually resolved by exchanging plots of similar surface area and value.
In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in getting a piece of glacier,” he explained, and “the Italians cannot compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area”.
Wine remains Italian
While the outcome remains a secret, the refuge’s caretaker, 51-year-old Lucio Trucco, has been told it will remain on Italian soil.
“The refuge remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” he said.
“The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian, and the taxes are Italian.”
Years of negotiations have delayed renovation of the refuge – the villages on both sides of the border have been unable to issue building permits.
The works will therefore not be ready in time for the planned opening of a new cable car to the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn mountain at the end of 2023.
The slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt.
While some mid-altitude resorts are preparing for the end of alpine skiing due to global warming, skiing is possible all summer on the Zermatt-Cervinia slopes, even if such activities contribute to glacier retreat.
“That’s why we need to improve the area here because it will definitely be the last to die,” Trucco said.
For now, on Swisstopo maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border remains a dotted line as it passes the mountain refuge.
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© 2022 AFP
Quote: Thawing and redrawing: melting glacier moves Italian-Swiss border (2022, July 26) retrieved July 26, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07-redraw-glacier-italian-swiss-border.html
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