Roundup: Melting Glaciers Move Borders, Peruvian Study Opens Door for Glacial Research, and Glacier Meltwater Acoustics

As The Climate Shifts A Border Moves

Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.

Rifugio Guide Del Cervino. Source: Franco56/ Wikimedia Commons

Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research

A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.

Read the story by Zoë Klobus on GlacierHub here.

Dissolved pyrite causes red deposit on rocks along a river in the Rio Santa watershed (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier. 

“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”

Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here

Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy daily work at the calving front of Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

As The Climate Shifts A Border Moves

Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a small mountain restaurant, opened in 1984 at a location high in the Italian Alps—now it might be in Switzerland. The restaurant has become the subject of a dispute between the two states due to a legal agreement which allows Italy’s northern border to move with the natural, morphological boundaries of glaciers’ frontiers, which largely follow the watersheds on either side of the ridges. The moving border has shifted over the last fifteen years since its creation as glaciers retreat and the restaurant may now be in Swiss territory. If decided to be in Switzerland, the restaurant would be subject to Swiss law, taxes, and potentially even customs; Swiss inspectors would need to approve every box of pasta and package of coffee brought up to the restaurant by cable car from Italy.

Rifugio Guide Del Cervino. 
Source: Franco56/ Wikimedia Commons

Borders can follow artificial paths, like those on maps forming perfectly straight lines, independent of the physical and cultural landscapes they may be mincing. Others are fixed by natural boundaries like the Niagara River separating the US and Canada. 

However, not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers. 

Mount Similaun glacier, where the border between Italy and Austria drifts with the ice. 
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani/ Italian Limes

The moving border is an unprecedented legal concept. It was established through an agreement between Italy and Austria in 2006 and another between Italy and Switzerland in 2009. France did not sign such an agreement because of post World War II territorial gains on the Italian side of the watershed it did not want to risk losing.

The moving border’s flexibility is a highly unusual case in a world where many borders serve to mark defined lines of inclusion and exclusion. “Borders today move following the policies of exclusion from/inclusion in pursued by States. For instance, when it comes to migration, EU South external borders happen to be already in Africa, where migrants are prevented from embarking towards Europe,” international lawyer and Roma Tre University human rights professor Alice Riccardi told GlacierHub.

Since 2008, the Istituto Geografico Militare (IGM), which has defined and maintained Italy’s state borders since 1865, has conducted high-altitude survey expeditions every two years to search for shifts in the border and subsequently to update official maps. The collaborative team that conducts the survey is composed of an equal number of experts from IGM and representatives from cartographic institutes of neighboring states.

The concept of the moving border captured the attention of Marco Ferrari, an architect, and Dr. Elisa Pasqual, a visual designer. In 2014, they launched a research project and interactive installation called Italian Limes focused on the moving border. The word limes comes from Latin and was used by the Romans to describe a nebulous, unfixed fringe zone on the edge of their territorial control. The Romans viewed limes as ebbing and flowing as the Roman army advanced and retreated similar to how today the border moves as the ice drifts. 

The project, featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale, explores the limits of natural borders when they are tested by long-term ecological processes and reveals how climate change has begun to wear on Western ideas of territory and borders. 

“The project makes the speed of climate change visible because we are used to thinking of borders, glaciers, and mountains as things that stay fixed,” Ferrari told GlacierHub. “Climate change changes our conception of territory in a way that is not just material, it’s not just a disruption of infrastructure, but also of the geographical imagery of the planet itself. So the very idea of the border is put into crisis by climate change in this sense, it almost contradicts the possibility of being able to trace a border.”

One of the high-precision GPS measurement tools used by the project at Grafferner Glacier. 
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani/ Italian Limes

The Italian Limes project takes measurements at the 1.5-kilometer long Grafferner Glacier near Mount Similaun in the Ötztal Alps at the border of Italy and Austria. GPS measurement units were installed at the site to track changes to the glacier and watershed which broadcast their data to a machine, which prints a real-time representation of the moving border.

“By looking at the history of the border we came across this specific moment in time of the mobile border that was initially presented to us as an anecdote, as a funny curiosity, a weird glitch in the normal diplomatic management of the relationship between countries. Because of how it was presented to us, we almost didn’t focus on it, but on second thought we saw that this was the nexus that could allow us to talk about all the things we wanted to talk about; it could allow us to reveal the contradiction in this idea of a natural border–how even the mountains, even the watershed, even glaciers aren’t something that is forever, the fact that they are chosen to be borders is a clear political act and when these things move the contradiction gets exposed,” Ferrari explained to GlacierHub.   

The installation showing a live representation of the border at ZKM, Karlsruhe.
Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani/ Italian Limes

The project grew to the point that Ferrari and Pasqual teamed up with architect and editor Andrea Bagnato to create A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, a 2019 book which builds on Italian Limes to map out the effects of climate change on geopolitical understandings of the border. 

“I saw the project at the Venice Biennale 2014, it was a fantastic installation, and that’s when I proposed to Marco and Elisa to turn it into a book because I thought that after the work they had done physically going up on the glacier and producing these devices to visualize the movements of the glacier, there were a lot of issues to explore in more detail, historical and political issues. The book was a way to do that,” Bagnato told GlacierHub. 

“The book provides a kind of historical perspective of the border and also of climate change,” Bagnato said. He continued, saying “Although we don’t address them directly in the book, I think it opens up to a lot of different geopolitical scenarios. Of course there are many situations in the world where borders pass on glaciers like in Chile/Argentina, India/Pakistan, and so on, where the geopolitics are far more heated than in Italy or Austria.”

The Alps in the Trentino province of Italy. 
Photo: Nawarona/ Flickr

Ultimately, the effects of climate change will introduce stresses that borders cannot keep under control. The new, quick changes to the moving border are only one such instance. The US state of Louisiana is rapidly losing ground to the waters on its coast. India and Bangladesh were involved in a dispute over who controlled an uninhabited sandbar that vanished beneath the rising seas. The province of Kashmir has long been a point of contention between Pakistan and India––if its glaciers melt and regional freshwater supply is put under great stress, conflict for control of the province could escalate significantly. 

In an interview with Vice, Ferrari said “Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”

Court Advances Case Against German Greenhouse Gas Emitter

Last month, a German court ruled that it will hear a case brought by a Peruvian farmer against Germany’s largest energy producer, RWE, potentially having huge ramifications in so-called climate justice cases. Farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya sued the company in 2015 for emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, increasing the threat of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) that endanger his home in Huaraz, in the foothills of the Andes.

This is only the second time a case against a greenhouse gas emitter has reached this stage— the first coming in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which was swiftly reversed— says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who spoke to GlacierHub about the proceedings. Gerrard noted that this case is “very unusual,” and added, “We’ll see what happens with this one.”

The claim cited a 2013 report that stated RWE emitted 0.47 percent of worldwide carbon and methane emissions from 1751-2010, since industrialization, partly due to its use of coal-fired power plants. To reflect this figure, Lliuya is only seeking reimbursement of 0.47 percent of the damages, or $20,000, out of a total cost of about $4.3 million, to help pay for his home flood defenses. 

Justin Gundlach, staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told GlacierHub, “Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, the court’s order to the parties to submit evidence is highly significant. Effectively, the court is announcing that it is theoretically possible to trace liability for harms arising from climate change, in part, to a particular corporate defendant.”

“I think the case is mostly seeking to establish legal precedent,” said Gerrard. “He’s alleging very significant injury with a clear causal to climate change.”

Huaraz, a city of population 200,000, was struck by a GLOF in the past from nearby Lake Palcacocha. In 1941, about 5,000 were killed from a GLOF event, and another flood in 1970 also killed thousands following a 7.9 earthquake. While pipes have been installed to lower the water when it gets too high, climate change continues to melt glaciers, some by 90 percent, and increases the size and threat of glacier lakes.

A report in The Guardian indicated that the judges in the case said “Even people who act according to the law must be held responsible for damage they cause to property.”  

According to Deutsche Welle, a German news organization, a representative for RWE stated, “We don’t believe it’s possible under civil law to hold a single emitter responsible for something that countless human and natural resources also contribute to.”

Gundlach told GlacierHub that while RWE may not be liable, “Its decision to admit evidence indicates to would-be plaintiffs around the world that they might prevail if they can present the right set of facts.”

Should Alberta Legally Protect Its Glaciers?

A recent article in the journal Appeal by Jennifer Cox of the University of Calgary discusses the possibility of legislation regimes for the roughly 700 glaciers in Alberta, Canada. She reviews existing laws and considers alternative forms which might protect these valuable, rapidly-shrinking ice bodies.

Murray Fraser Hall, University of Calgary Faculty of Law (source: LSAC)
Murray Fraser Hall, University of Calgary Faculty of Law (source: LSAC)

Cox argues that existing laws in Canada do not protect glaciers, which she describes as sui generis, or unique. She asserts that Alberta should consider drafting legislation devoted to them, and explores how other countries— like Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, and Switzerland— have legally protected their own glaciers.

Cox begins by mentioning the important status of glaciers. Glaciers provide many ecosystem services and also have touristic and economic value for sightseeing, as well as ecological and scientific value. However, climate change is the greatest threat to Alberta’s glaciers. Since glaciers retreat and their water storage capacity diminishes, problems related to the legal rights of water resources will occur. Moreover, melting glaciers could also lead to possible floods,which some researchers think could be a major problem for Alberta.

Considering that glaciers can provide so many functions and but also spur conflict or disaster, Cox recommends that legislation for glaciers should be created in Alberta and that lawmakers should consider both the pitfalls and successes of laws in other countries first.

Cox raises a slew of questions about glaciers and the law:

As glaciers retreat and their incredible water storage is used up, who gets priority to the water? What happens to the riparian rights downstream when the primary source disappears? Who can tourist companies and national parks sue when one of their main attractions disappear? What if precious minerals, such as gold or copper, are discovered underneath Alberta’s glaciers? Who has rights to glaciers? Is there a right to glaciers? Can glaciers be removed and sold? If so, who gets the pro ts?26 What happens to borders, provincial or international, when the glaciers that differentiate them melt? Who will be liable in the case of a GLOF?

Moraine Lake Alberta Canada(Credit: Flickr)
Moraine Lake, Alberta (Credit: Flickr)

In order to answer the questions above, the author tries to articulate the current situation and to give some recommendations for Alberta from a legal perspective.

The Canada Water Act, the Canada National Parks Act, Alberta’s Provincial Parks Act,and Canada’s other federal and provincial climate change laws do not provide useful guidance related to the legal status of glaciers. The provincial and federal parks acts do not give a layer of direct protection for glaciers within their boundaries, and climate change regulations focus mostly on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As for the Canada’s common law, water riparian rights are neither logically stated nor practically protected. Although international law could provide theoretical guidance, its principle is still legally inapplicable to the glaciers of Alberta. Thus, no legal regime on glaciers currently exists in Alberta.

Fort McMurray Wildfire in Alberta Canada Deemed Extreme(Credit: NASA)
Fort McMurray Wildfire in Alberta Canada Deemed Extreme (Credit: NASA)

“Alberta should look to create legislation that is aimed directly at glaciers,” Cox concludes. “Proactive legislation would protect this unique economic and environmental resource for Albertans and Canadians for decades to come.”

Meanwhile, wildfires continue to ravage Alberta and might take several months to extinguish. This unusually large set of wildfires reflects the influence of climate change, and points to the urgency of fighting climate change. As Cox shows, legal systems can be a crucial element in such fights.