Photo: Dorena-wm via Flickr
The discovery of the bodies of two soldiers from a First World War battlefield high up in the Dolomite’s in Italy has renewed concerns about the rapid melting of Europe’s glaciers as a result of global warming.The area was the scene of bitter mountain warfare between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, in a theatre of the First World War which was described by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms.
The two soldiers, believed to have been members of an artillery unit in the Austro-Hungarian army, lay interred in snow and ice for nearly 100 years, after being killed in fierce fighting with Italian forces, probably in May 1918.
But Italy’s warmest summer in nearly a decade melted the ice in which they were encased to reveal their entangled skeletons, fragments of uniform and military insignia.
It is the second such discovery in less than two months – in August a cache of more than 200 rusted grenades dating from the First World War emerged from another glacier in the Dolomites.
The remains of the soldiers were found at an altitude of 9,850 feet on the Presena glacier, in the Trentino-Alto Adige region.
Ironically they were discovered by employees of a company which is covering the glacier with vast tarpaulins to try to halt its shrinking as a result of rising temperatures.
Their remains were gathered up by alpine guides and military historians and flown by helicopter to a hospital in the city of Vicenza, where they will undergo laboratory analysis for identification. They will then be buried in a war cemetery.
“The Presena glacier has been for 100 years the tomb of these soldiers, but unfortunately the melting of the ice has resulted in them emerging after all this time,” said Walter Belotti, a historian of the war.
Experts said that with glaciers melting as a result of climate change, more relics and remains would emerge, testimony to a campaign which cost the lives of a million men and which Hemingway called “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery” of the war.
Across the Alps, not just in Italy but in neighbouring Austria, Switzerland and France, glaciers are in retreat at an alarming rate due to rising temperatures.
Mountaineers and hikers are seeing more avalanches and rock falls as the morphology of the Alps changes.
In the Austrian Tirol, some glaciers have retreated 22 feet in the last decade.
In Switzerland skiers used to be able ski on four glaciers in the summer – now that number has dwindled to two.
In Italy’s Selvio national park in the Dolomites, glaciers have shrunk by up to 40 per cent in the last 50 years.
More than half of the ice-covered area of the Alps has disappeared since 1850, the end of a cold spell known as the Little Ice Age.
“In the worst case scenario, by the end of the century glaciers in the Alps will be reduced to five to 10 per cent of what we have now,” said Michael Zemp, a scientist with the World Glacier Monitoring Service.
“Even if we freeze climate change to its present rate, glaciers will still reduce by 10 to 30 per cent by the end of the century. That’s the most optimistic scenario. So far we have seen no progress in stopping climate change. It’s not hopeless, but we need action right now.”
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