SHARE
COPY LINK

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.

Manual widget for ML (class=”ml-manual-widget-container”)

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

CLIMATE CRISIS

Europe’s temperatures rising more than twice global average, UN warns

Temperatures in Europe have increased at more than twice the global average over the past three decades, showing the fastest rise of any continent on earth, the UN said Wednesday.

Europe's temperatures rising more than twice global average, UN warns

The European region has on average seen temperatures rise 0.5 degrees Celsius each decade since 1991, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service found in a joint report.

As a result, Alpine glaciers lost 30 metres (just under 100 feet) in ice thickness between 1997 and 2021, while the Greenland ice sheet is swiftly melting and contributing to accelerating sea level rise.

Last year, Greenland experienced melting and the first-ever recorded rainfall at its highest point. And the report cautioned that regardless of future levels of global warming, temperatures would likely continue to rise across Europe at a rate exceeding global mean temperature changes.

“Europe presents a live picture of a warming world and reminds us that even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

WMO splits the world into six regions, with the European region covering 50 countries and including half of the swiftly warming Arctic, which is not a continent in its own right.

Within Antarctica — which is a continent but falls outside the six WMO-defined regions –only the West Antarctic Peninsula part is seeing rapid warming.

‘Vulnerable’

The new report, released ahead of the UN’s 27th conference on climate set to open in Egypt on Sunday, examined the situation in Europe up to and including 2021.

It found that last year, high-impact weather and climate events — mainly floods and storms — led to hundreds of deaths, directly affected more than half a million people and caused economic damage across Europe exceeding $50 billion.

At the same time, the report highlighted some positives, including the success of many European countries in slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Across the EU, such emissions decreased by nearly a third between 1990 and 2020, and the bloc has set a net 55-percent reduction target for 2030.

Europe is also one of the most advanced regions when it comes to cross-border cooperation towards climate change adaptation, the report said. It also hailed Europe’s world-leading deployment of early warning systems, providing protection for about 75 percent of the population, and said its heat-health action plans had saved many lives.

“European society is vulnerable to climate variability and change,” said Carlo Buontempo, head of Copernicus’s European Centre of Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). “But Europe is also at the forefront of the international effort to mitigate climate change and to develop innovative solutions to adapt to the new climate Europeans will have to live with.”

Health concerns

Yet, the continent is facing formidable challenges.

“This year, like 2021, large parts of Europe have been affected by extensive heatwaves and drought, fuelling wildfires,” Taalas said, also decrying “death and devastation” from last year’s “exceptional floods”.

And going forward, the report cautioned that regardless of the greenhouse gas emissions scenario, “the frequency and intensity of hot extremes… are projected to keep increasing.”

This is concerning, the report warned, given that the deadliest extreme climate events in Europe are heatwaves, especially in the west and south of the continent.

“The combination of climate change, urbanisation and population ageing in the region creates, and will further exacerbate, vulnerability to heat,” the report said.

The shifting climate is also spurring other health concerns. It has already begun altering the production and distribution of pollens and spores, which appear to be leading to increases in various allergies.

While more than 24 percent of adults living in the European region suffer from such allergies, including severe asthma, the proportion among children is 30-40 percent and rising, it said.

The warming climate is also causing more vector-borne diseases, with ticks moving into new areas bringing Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis. Asian tiger mosquitos are also moving further north, carrying the risk of Zika, dengue and chikungunya, the report said.

SHOW COMMENTS