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.”

In Argentina, Tensions Remain Between Mining and Glacier Protection

A recent article “Defending Glaciers in Argentina” in the journal Peace Review, written by Asmaa N. Khadim, explores the history of one of the world’s largest mining companies, Barrick Gold Corporation, and its conflict with Argentina’s environmental protectors. Many of its mining projects are in proximity to glaciers, which are a crucial water source for local residents.

Argentina mining (Credit: Wikimedia)
Argentina mining, province of San Juan (Credit: Wikimedia)

In recent years, to bolster its economy, the Argentine government created incentives to attract foreign capital to invest in mining, which includes lower royalties, favorable foreign investment laws, and a competitive tax regime. But it has not always paid attention to environmental issues.

Many multinational companies want a share of Argentina’s natural resources, like Barrick Gold, Strata, and Meridian Gold, all which have invested heavily in the country’s mining industry. Many of their gold mining operations lie in the Andes, and this region is considered to be one of the most important gold and silver districts across the world. However, many ore deposits lie near glaciers. This location creates risks of water pollution and of mismanagement of water resources, including groundwater. Mining operations could also create soil and air pollution in these settings.

The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia
The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia (Credit: Wikimedia)

Two particular projects, Veladero and Pascua Lama, in this region have caused many of the disputes, because of their proximity to numerous glaciers high in the Andes. These two projects are run by Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian company. The Andes are environmentally sensitive, not only because it is home to massive glaciers, but also because of the significance of glaciers as a source that contributes to Argentina’s water supply.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission released the paper Our Common Future defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This paper reframed the vision of environmental rights, which led many countries, including Argentina, to add environmental protection to their constitutional frameworks.

In late 1990s, local environmental organizations saw the risks of mining development in the Andes. They started to press the Argentine government for a law to protect glaciers. As the paper in Peace Review recounts, “The first bill was approved by Congress in 2008, but was subsequently vetoed by President Cristina Fernandez on the basis of economic development arguments.”

Later, in September 2010, a new version of the glacier protection law, the National Glacier Act, was ratified by the Argentine senate. The role of this law is to act as an inspector to identify areas that require protection. This law faced significant resistance from mining companies. The companies allocated funds to lobby legislators to oppose the  bill. They also paid for nationwide advertising campaigns which opposed this bill and its enforcement. Jorge Daniel Taillant, an Argentine researcher, has documented these efforts in his book Glaciers: The Politics of Ice.

As a result of the pressure from powerful mining companies, a federal court judge suspended the implementation of the 2010 glacier protection law within the province of San Juan, where many mining projects are located. It was not until 2012 that Argentina’s Supreme Court overruled this decision and restored the application of the law to this province.

Environmental law in Argentina (Credit: Wikimedia)
Environmental law in Argentina (Credit: Wikimedia)

The tension between mining interests and environmentalists has become more severe as the mining projects continue. Mining brings negative impacts on ecosystems and  biodiversity, water quality, and human health. Khadim describes how Barrick Gold Corporation has hired private security and pressured local provincial police to repress the environmental organizations. Violence and riots have resulted.

It remains a question whether the 2010 law will protect glaciers and water resources. “While constitutional entrenchment alone may not be sufficient to achieve the protection of environmental rights, it appears to be a core foundational step upon which an effective regulatory system may be built,” Khadim states. The outcome of this conflict will have consequences not only in Argentina, but in other areas of the world, such as Central Asia, where mining companies seek to expand into environmentally sensitive mountain areas with glaciers.