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CLIMATE CRISIS

How climate change is creating disputes on the Swiss-Italian border

The climate change-induced melting of glaciers is moving Switzerland's borders, leading to new disputes over land and buildings.

The Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak between Zermatt Switzerland and Breuil-Cervinia, Italy has become the site of a potential border dispute. Climate change is shifting the Swiss and Italian border. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
The Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak between Zermatt Switzerland and Breuil-Cervinia, Italy has become the site of a potential border dispute. Climate change is shifting the Swiss and Italian border. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Way up in the snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to a melting glacier, putting the location of an Italian mountain lodge in dispute.

The borderline runs along a drainage divide — the point at which meltwater will run down either side of the mountain towards one country or the other.

But the Theodul Glacier’s retreat means the watershed has crept towards the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 3,480-metre (11,417-foot) Testa Grigia peak — and it is gradually sweeping underneath the building.

EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the refuge’s restaurant, the light flooding in from outside.

The menu is in Italian, not German, and priced in euros rather than Swiss francs. Nonetheless, at the counter, he orders a slice of pie and asks: “So — are we in Switzerland or in Italy?”

It is a question worth asking as it has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations that started in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year — but the details remain secret. 

A sign on the Swiss border near Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

A sign on the Swiss border near Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Sleeping on the Swiss side

When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely in Italian territory.

But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically perched in southern Switzerland.

The issue has come to the fore because the area, which relies on tourism, is located at the top of one of the world’s largest ski resorts, with a major new development including a cable car station being constructed a few metres away.

An agreement was hammered out in Florence in November 2021 but the outcome will only be revealed once it is rubber-stamped by the Swiss government — which will not happen before 2023.

“We agreed to split the difference,” Alain Wicht, chief border official at Switzerland’s national mapping agency Swisstopo told AFP.

His job includes looking after the 7,000 boundary markers along landlocked Switzerland’s 1,935-kilometre border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.

Wicht attended the negotiations, where both parties made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side came out winners, at least nobody lost”, he said.

Line in the snow

Where the Italian-Swiss border traverses Alpine glaciers, the frontier follows the watershed line. But the Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010.

That exposed the rock underneath to the ice, altering the drainage divide and forcing the two neighbours to redraw around a 100-metre-long stretch of their border.

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

Wicht said that such adjustments were frequent and generally settled by comparing readings by surveyors from the border countries, without getting politicians involved.

“We are squabbling 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 “economic value” to the land. His Italian counterparts declined to comment “due to the complex international situation”.

Former Swisstopo chief Jean-Philippe Amstein said such disputes are typically resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equivalent surface area and value.

In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in obtaining a piece of glacier,” he explained, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area”.

Wine stays Italian

While the outcome remains secret, the refuge’s caretaker, 51-year-old Lucio Trucco, has been told it will stay 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.”

The years of negotiation have delayed the refuge’s renovation — the villages either side of the border have not been able to issue a building permit.

The works will therefore not be completed in time for the scheduled opening of a new cable car up the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn mountain in late 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 throughout the summer on the Zermatt-Cervinia slopes, even if such activities contribute to the glacier’s retreat.

“That’s why we have to enhance the area here because it will surely be the last one to die,” said Trucco.

For now, on Swisstopo’s maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border remains a dashed line as it passes the refuge.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

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

EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

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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