EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Extremely warm temperatures are melting Switzerland’s glaciers, leading to some surprising geopolitical challenges.

The melting of Switzerland's glaciers has been accelerating in recent years. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
The melting of Switzerland's glaciers has been accelerating in recent years. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Receding glaciers, which are now shrinking at a faster rate than before, are re-defining borders between Switzerland and Italy.

The border between Italy and Switzerland runs for 800.2 kilometres, much of which is mountainous. 

Parts of it run along glaciers which have formed part of the landscape for generations, but are now melting. 

For instance, melting snow and ice on and around the famed Matterhorn, which straddles both countries, is literally moving the borders.

How are the borders changing?

Alain Wicht, who is in charge of national border layouts at the Federal Office of Topography (Swisstopo), said it remains to be seen what the long-term implications are of the changes. 

Around two-thirds of Switzerland’s 7,000lm-long border is made up of natural borders, such as lakes, glaciers, rivers and mountains.

At present, Switzerland has not seen a net loss or a net gain of territory. 

“In some places, Switzerland has gained territory and in others it has lost it.”

However, in the future, it appears Switzerland is set to grow. 

Unlike administratively drawn borders, these can move when the land in question moves, i.e. in in the instance of landslides, a river shrinking or changing course – and the melting of glaciers. 

Pursuant to international law, when artificial borders are redrawn, a country cannot gain or lose territory – i.e. they must receive some additional territory to compensate for a loss. 

This is not the case with natural borders, which can see a country gain territory when the natural feature representing the border moves. 

According to Swiss tabloid Blick, melting glaciers will see Switzerland gain more land

“Overall, however, Switzerland should benefit from climate change, at least in terms of territory gains.”

“Glaciers are mainly found on the northern slopes. If they melt, the watershed line moves south. The surface of Switzerland will therefore increase.

What do the shifts mean for Switzerland?

This drift has logistical and practical implications, according to Wicht.

READ MORE: Why Switzerland’s glaciers are melting faster than usual this summer

For instance, “when an accident occurs, the question arises as to which country is responsible. And when train lines or roads cross the Alps, it should be clear whether they should stick to Italian or Swiss regulations for their construction and maintenance”.

The shift also affects the Testa-Grigia hut above Zermatt, according to a report in Blick on Sunday. 

The glacier surrounding the refuge has melted heavily in recent years.

Switzerland and Italy must agree on the location of the border to determine which country administers the hut.

There are also VAT implications depending on which country the hut is deemed to be in. 

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MAP: The parts of Italy most at risk from floods and extreme weather

After flooding devastated parts of central Italy on Friday, data has revealed the areas most at risk as such 'extreme weather events' become more frequent.

MAP: The parts of Italy most at risk from floods and extreme weather

After severe storms and flash floods in the central Marche region last week left 11 dead, with two still missing, environmental organisation Legambiente said climate interventions “can no longer be put off”.

“The climate crisis is no joke,” the group said in a press release published on Saturday. “The flooding that hit Le Marche is yet another alarm bell that the planet is sending us.”

IN PHOTOS: Devastation after deadly flash floods hit central Italy

Italy was hit by a total 64 floods between January and September 2022, according to the latest data from Legambiente’s Città Clima (‘Climate City’) Observatory, with some areas worse affected than others.

As the majority of Italy’s floods occur in the autumn and winter, it’s feared that the total figure for 2022 will be higher than for 2021.

Disasters like the one that hit Marche are difficult to predict, but data from the most recent Città Clima Observatory’s report, published in November of last year, shows which parts of the peninsula have suffered the greatest number of extreme weather events since 2010, giving an idea of the areas most at risk.

Data showed these were mainly large cities such as Rome, Bari, Milan, Genoa and Palermo, and coastal areas, particularly the coasts of Romagna, northern Marche, and eastern Sicily.

The parts of Italy that have experienced the most extreme weather events since 2010. Source: Città Clima

Sicily has been the worst-hit region in recent months, battered by eight floods so far this year and 14 in 2021, the Città Clima interactive map shows. Palermo, Catania and Syracuse have each experienced multiple floods in the past couple of years.

Lazio has also been hard hit, experiencing six flooding events so far in 2022 and ten in 2021, the majority of which occurred in Rome.


Capital city Rome experienced by far the highest number of extreme weather events: 56 in total, of which 13 involved such heavy rainfall it caused damage to infrastructure and 21 necessitated a partial closure of metro lines.

Bari, the capital of Puglia, was the next worst hit, with a total of 41 events, 20 of which were floods and 18 of which took the form of tornados or whirlwinds that caused damage to the city.

Milan experienced 30 events, of which 20 were a result of river flooding.

The metropolitan area of Naples experienced 31 events, 18 of which occurred in Naples itself, while Genoa was hit by 21 events variously consisting of flooding, torrential rainfall and whirlwinds, and Palermo experienced 15.

A total of 132 extreme weather events were recorded in Italy between January and July 2022 – more than the annual average for the last decade, Legambiente reported in its press release.

A flooded field in Sassoferrato, Ancona province, after severe storms on Friday. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

There have been a total of 510 floods in Italy from 2010 to September 2022, 88 of which happened in 2021, according to the organisation’s statistics.

The association urged the government to take urgent action, arguing that Italy is currently the only major European country that lacks climate adaptation plan, which it says has been on hold since 2018.

“There is no more time to waste,” said Legambiente president Stefano Ciafani.

“If the plan is not approved in a very short timeframe, we risk seeing disastrous social, environmental and economic impacts over the next few years.”