Ice Melts, Border Changes

On March 28, 2009 · 3 Comments

Borders based on natural features cannot last forever. Topography changes over time, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but invariably it happens. You may have seen a recent article that appeared in CNN, Melting glaciers in Alps forcing Italy and Switzerland to redraw their borders, that proves this point.

It’s a fascinating account although the headline is perhaps a bit overstated. There’s no forcing involved; perhaps "prompts" might have been a better choice. The Italian parliament is drafting legislation to redefine its boundary with Switzerland in a cooperative effort between the two countries. The affected areas are situated along uninhabited alpine ridgelines. No private individuals own any of the land and nobody will have to change citizenship. It’s primarily a cartographic effort. As explained in the article,

The 1941 convention between Italy and Switzerland established as criteria [for border revisions] the ridge [crest] of the glaciers. Following the withdrawal of the glaciers in the Alps, a new criterion has been proposed so that the new border coincides with the rock.

The article got a lot of coverage in the media and on the blogs because of its Global Warming angle, the implication being that rising temperatures are melting the glaciers and erasing the basis for portions of the border between Italy and Switzerland. Twelve Mile Circle has an interest in a different angle, not to discount Global Warming and all it entails, but because I love stories about wacky borders.

View Larger Map

This image is a good portion of the mountainous boundary between the two countries that is causing the underlying problem. The borderline is a little difficult to see in terrain view because of its coloration, so go ahead and switch between the terrain, map and satellite tabs, and you’ll get a good understanding of the border and how it was derived. Notice the elevations, snowfields and glaciation. If the ice melts, well, literally so does the border. The changes won’t be dramatic because the underlying mountains aren’t going away anytime soon, but changes will be necessary nonetheless if the two countries wish to maintain the integrity of the border.

The article mentions specifically the area in the vicinity of the Matterhorn. I don’t know whether a special problem exists here or if they mentioned it because the Matterhorn is an iconic peak and they though it would resonate with their audience. The article does not elaborate. Either way, let’s take a closer look.

View Larger Map

I’ve selected the satellite view because it really highlights the glaciation, but also take a look at the terrain view to better understand the elevation changes. The Matterhorn, or Cervino on the Italian side of the border, rises 4,478 metres (14,692 feet) within the Pennine Alps. Its four distinct faces are extremely steep. The elevation changes are so sharp that little snow can cling to its pyramidal form for very long. Rather, the preponderance of snowfall slides right down towards the mountain’s base into the valleys below where it compacts with other snow to feed the glaciers. The largest of these is the Zmutt Glacier (Zmuttgletscher) which was six kilometres long in 2005, and who knows how long today (although presumably shorter?). Zmutt Glacier is found on the Swiss side of border in the canton of Valais but its hardly the only glacier fed by the Matterhorn snow machine.

I’ve seen plenty of examples where borders changed — or stubbornly refused to change — in the wake of changing watercourses, but this is the first instance I’ve seen that involved a frozen watercourse.

On March 28, 2009 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Ice Melts, Border Changes”

  1. haha
    continuing & still amused from last time
    i am pleased not to take anything too seriously
    but you keep hitting my google alerts so i may seem more devoted than i am
    & whenever i find you partway to the truth i may like to add some

    here you may just be amused to know
    glacial direction can never be presumed from year to year
    since it is based on actual local weather conditions over time
    another instance involving a frozen watercourse occurs at the head of a fjord in southeast alaska called tarr inlet
    yet it is not that the border there actually moves but only that canada gains & loses an extra bit of icy seacost whenever the glacier retreats & advances across a fixed geodesic boundary line

    the alaska panhandle mainland breaks into 2 distinct parts whenever canada regains that tiny coast

    most recently the glacier head appears to be fluctuating right around the exact border line

    oranges & apples perhaps but equally fun

    & about that australia thing
    i hope you noticed the victoria surveyors
    who really should know about this border
    do not agree with what canberra is purporting
    in likely typical ozzy overexuberance

  2. this is crazy how this happens.

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