As glaciers melt, bodies resurface

In June 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter was flying over the Colony Glacier on a routine training flight when the crew noticed bits of wreckage scattered on the ice. The twisted metal, bits of cloth and other debris turned out to be all that was left of a C-124 Globemaster II troop transport that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 people on board.

In June of this year, the Department of Defense said it identified the remains of 17 servicemen from the crash site. “It’s taken 60 years for the wreckage and portions of the plane to actually come out of the glacier underneath all that ice and snow,” said Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist for the military, in a 2012 interview. “It’s starting to erode out now.”

The crash site was nothing like that of a nearly intact World War II-era fighter found in the Sahara. Because of the to the glacier’s splitting ice crevasses, much of the plane, and the plane’s remaining crew, are likely still frozen after 60 years. The location of the troop transport, which was known not long after the crash, had been lost because of the glacier’s movement and the opening and closing of those crevasses.

The reappearance of a long-lost body in the ice isn’t a new thing and will likely become more common as global climate change melts more ice, revealing the frozen corpses of people thought to be missing forever.

The most famous glacier find happened over two decades ago. In 1991, two German tourists were climbing the Similaun peak on a sunny afternoon in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border when they spied a body lying facedown and half-frozen in the ice. What was left of the body’s skin was hardened, light brown in color, and stretched tightly across its skeleton.

The man the tourists found turned out to be more than 5,000 years old. Named Ötzi, after the Ötzal region of the Alps he was found in, the natural mummy provided a look into Copper Age Europe. He had tools, clothes and even shoes frozen along with him. Ötzi’s remarkable preservation (he’s Europe’s oldest natural mummy) was due to him being covered in snow and later ice shortly after death, shielding him from decay.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Last summer, elsewhere in the Alps, a rescue helicopter pilot spotted something that shouldn’t be in the glaciers surrounding the Matterhorn: abandoned equipment and clothing wrapped around bones. Those remains turned out to be those of 27-year-old British climber Jonathan Conville, who had disappeared on the mountain in 1979. Hundreds of people have been reported missing from the area surrounding the Matterhorn and melting ice means more of them might be found.

The tiny town of Peio, high up in the Italian Alps, has grown accustomed to this phenomenon. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the peaks, caves and glaciers around Peio were the scene of heavy fighting during World War I between Imperial and Italian forces. From 1915-1918, the two sides fought along the hundreds of miles of the Italian Front where more than a million soldiers died and two million more were wounded in the aptly named White War.

Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)
Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)

As the Alpine glaciers melt high above Peio, rifles, equipment, bits of tattered uniforms and even letters and diaries from a hundred years ago again see the light of day. Though many of these relics are displayed in the town’s war museum, many more are looted by treasure hunters hoping to resell them on the black market.

The frozen, mummified bodies of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers have also started to resurface. In 2012, two soldiers who died in the 1918 Battle of Presena were given a military funeral in Peio. When they died, the two young Austrian fighters were buried top-to-toe in a crevasse in the Presena Glacier. As with the Alaska crash, only the glacier decides when and where to give up a body. But humans, by changing our planet’s atmosphere and climate, are giving glaciers a strong nudge.

The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
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Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age | GlacierHubreply
December 12, 2014 at 01:12 PM

[…] a field that is only now coming into its own. While one-offs like Ötzi and other mummies have made thrilling finds, the potential for recovery of new artifacts is growing as glacial melt accelerates around the […]

GlacierHub is One Year Old Today! – GlacierHubreply
July 07, 2015 at 08:07 AM

[…] #10 As Glaciers Melt, Bodies Resurface. […]

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