Europe’s melting glaciers are revealing their secrets too quickly
But when the Swiss archaeologist Romain Andenmatten arrived there on a recent September day, the ground was so muddy and wet that his shoes sank to the bottom. On the ground before him lay a leather strap, rimmed with glittering ice crystals, its holes filled with fine gravel.
The last time a human held it may have been over 1,000 years ago.
Like climate change melting glaciers at unprecedented speeds, such ancient artifacts are emerging from the shrinking ice sheets around the world. For archaeologists, this is both a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a daunting task as the planet’s rapid warming exposes objects faster than they can be saved.
When artifacts emerge from the ice after decades or centuries, many are so well preserved that they appear to have been frozen only hours before. European researchers recently cultivated plants from 100-year-old seeds that were discovered “frozen in time” in a World War I-era bunker on the Swiss-Italian border. Some of the most scientifically valuable discoveries are organic, such as wood and leather, which normally decompose without ice.
But because of the speed at which the earth’s glaciers are melting – temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Alps as elsewhere – researchers worry they won’t have enough time. Large portions of the collective history of about a third of the world’s population in mountain areas are “melting”, said archaeologist Marcel Cornelissen.
The emergence of an object from the ice prompts a race to preserve it before it decomposes. “The mountains are starting to move,” said Regula Gubler, a Swiss archaeologist.
A “hurricane” of fusion
The sound of a rockfall echoed across the valley of the Forcle Glacier as Andenmatten and a colleague, archeology student Tristan Allegro, 25, walked slowly across the thinly layered ice. of dark dust, rocks and dirt.
The only other sound in these heights was the hum of commercial jets leaving their white contrails in the cloudless sky.
“This glacier once cut through the entire valley,” Andenmatten said, pointing to a barren, ice-free basin in front of him. But in the next 10 to 20 years, the entire Forcle Glacier could be gone.
This year alone, Swiss glaciers have lost 6 percent of their ice, said glaciologist Matthias Huss, who compares the destructive force of summer heat waves to an Alpine one. “hurricane”.
“We have seen an increase in the frequency of years with very strong fusion in the last few decades,” he said. “But what we’ve seen this summer is really completely different from all these previous extreme years.”
This year’s ice loss is so far above the historical average that, in theory, it should be “virtually impossible.”
The extra melt may have prevented some of Europe’s mighty rivers from drying up during this year’s heat wave cascade. But once a critical melting threshold has been crossed in the future, the lack of glacier water will be felt throughout the continent.
Ice is “a dead man walking,” said Lars Holger Pilo, an archaeologist in Norway.
A retreat of the glaciers it is not necessarily unnatural. They always grow during extremely cold periods and fill up when those cold stretches end. Some natural fusion it was expected in Europe after the last “Little Ice Age” ended in the 19th century.
But as carbon dioxide emissions have increased over the past century, human factors have begun to accelerate what had been expected to be a gradual natural retreat — and turn ice sheets and glaciers into sites of archaeological investigation. and sometimes criminals.
As the merger accelerated in the early 1990s, the first spectacular discoveries piqued the interest of researchers.
In the late summer of 1991, two German hikers on the Italian-Austrian border found the frozen body of a man who was initially assumed to be the victim of a recent accident. Later he became known as Ötzi, or “Iceman” – a 5000-year-old murder victim who had been killed with an arrow and had been preserved in ice.
In the following decades, Ötzi became perhaps the body most carefully investigated in history, which allows researchers to draw conclusions about historical climates, early human habits and genetics.
As the ice melts, archaeologists are moving deeper into some of its oldest layers—and into the past.
“The findings are definitely older,” said Pilo, the researcher in Norway, who discovered artifacts that show radiocarbon dating to be thousands of years old.
Among the finds were a more than 3,500-year-old Swiss leather shoe and a 10,000-year-old Alpine glacier mine where hunters extracted rock crystals to make arrowheads and other types of blades. In Norway, a 1,300-year-old ski that predates the Vikings was so well preserved that scientists were able to reproduce a working copy and race down the slopes with it.
About half of all the world’s ice discoveries that are medieval or older have been made in Norway, which has a particularly high accumulation of ice that does not move. Archaeologists prefer to look for artifacts in such deposits because – unlike glaciers – the lack of movement prevents the items from being loosened and “sput out”, said Gubler, the Swiss scientist. In the Swiss Alps, the most promising areas of discovery are the ice patches and snow fields around the glaciers, and not the glaciers themselves.
The discoveries so far can only be a glimpse of what could be found. It’s hairy his colleagues in the county of Innlandet in Norway they have a list of about 150 potential sites that they have not yet been able to examine.
For Pilo and many of his colleagues, the challenge is no longer to identify sites where discoveries are likely but prioritize those that are most important for salvation.
“For every patch we find, there are probably dozens that are going unnoticed and quietly melting away — and the cultural heritage embedded in them is out there in the August sun, rotting away,” said Nicholas Jarman, an archaeologist for the U.S. National Weather Service. National Park of the United States in New Mexico that uses much of its annual permit to hunt for artifacts in the glaciers.
“It’s a small reflection of the broader social challenge we face,” he said. “Will I look back in 20 years, wishing I had done more?”
“I wonder if we’re too late”
In Switzerland, Andenmatten and his colleague hope that crowdsourcing can help them solve the challenge.
They are released a smartphone app last year allowing anyone to share photos and GPS coordinates of potential finders. It allows scientists to make a first assessment of the importance of a discovery before embarking on a sometimes days-long trek.
Allegro, the archeology student, had used the app to notify the regional archaeological authority when he made the first discoveries on the Forcle glacier this year. The office asked him to join the research team.
As the sun rose behind the mountains, he and Andenmatten donned UV masks and hats to protect themselves from the sun’s scorching rays. By the time they had thrown off their coats, the glacier stream that was still covered by a thin layer of ice in the morning had turned into a stream of bubbling meltwater.
Armed with a GPS receiver and a hammer, the two researchers scanned the area, looking for anything that seemed out of place.
They didn’t have to look far. In a few hours, their black plastic bags were filled with dozens of handmade wooden items and the leather strap.
Every time they decided it was time to begin their descent, the scientists would stumble upon a new artifact.
Discoveries in this part of Switzerland over the years have included carved wooden statues which probably date back more than 2,500 years to the iron age, a gun and clothes who can have belonging to a 16th century mercenary, and a pair of 3,500-year-old leather shoes.
But the influx of artifacts could come to an abrupt end one day.
Swiss researcher Gubler has hiked up to the Schnidejoch, a mountain pass about 9,000 meters above sea level, almost every year for the past decade and says it was an archaeological treasure.
But when Gubler returned this summer, he found all the ice was gone.
“Everything happened very fast,” he said.
Some researchers have noted a marked decline in the number of discoveries, at least in some areas, as the ice fields begin to disappear.
“I wonder if we are too late,” said archaeologist Cornelissen.
Working in such close proximity to some of the most visible effects of climate change can be distressing, researchers say.
Jarman, the researcher based in New Mexico, says that when he is in the field, focusing on the task at hand is easy. Because only a few weeks or even days each year offer adequate time for exploration, being in the field leaves little time for reflection.
The most difficult moments tend to be those at home, when “excitement and archaeological excitement are tempered with this sober awareness,” Jarman said. “As you witness the end of something.”
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