Wed, Aug 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Climate change is forcing Swiss glaciers to give up the missing

Authorities said melting of the country’s glaciers at an unprecedented rate has caused a significant increase in the number of human remains discovered

By Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly  /  The Guardian

Swiss police said hundreds of bodies of mountaineers who have gone missing in the Alps in the past century could emerge in coming years as global warming forces the country’s glaciers to retreat.

Alpine authorities have registered a significant increase in the number of human remains discovered last month, with the body of a man missing for 30 years the most recent to be uncovered.

Rescue teams in Saas Valley in the Valais canton were on Tuesday last week called after two climbers retreating from an aborted ascent spotted a hand and two shoes protruding from the Hohlaub Glacier.

Rescuers spent two hours freeing the mummified body with icepicks and their bare hands, also recovering a silver wristwatch and a ring. A helicopter flew the remains to Bern, Switzerland, where forensics experts matched the DNA to that of a German citizen, born in 1943, who had gone missing on a hike on Aug. 11, 1987.

One rescue worker said the man had worn shoes “unsuitable” for walking on ice, suggesting he might have slipped after walking a few meters onto the glacier and fallen down a crevice. Both feet had become detached from the body, indicating the force of the fall.

The discovery came less than a week after the bodies of a Swiss couple, missing for 75 years, were found in the Tsanfleuron Glacier in the same canton. Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin had disappeared after going out to milk their cows in a meadow above Chandolin on Aug. 15, 1942.

On Thursday last week, the remains of a person believed to have been killed in an Air India crash more than 50 years ago were also discovered in the French Alps, on Mount Blanc.

Switzerland’s glaciers have been melting at an unprecedented rate, losing almost 1km3 in ice volume, or about 900 billion liters of water, over the past year.

According to an investigation by newspaper Tagesanzeiger, eight of the 10 months in which the glaciers have lost the most in volume over the past century have been since 2008.

Since 1850, when glaciers covered 1,735km2 of Swiss land, the total area has shrunk by half to about 890km2.

Police in Valais expect the bodies of many more missing persons to emerge because of global warming.

“It’s quite clear,” spokesman Christian Zuber said. “The glaciers are retreating, so it’s logical that we’re finding more and more bodies and body parts. In the coming years we expect that many more cases of missing persons will be resolved.”

A map that lists everyone who had gone missing since 1925 contains 306 names and locations, one fewer since the discovery of the German mountaineer, he said.

At least 160 alpinists remain missing in France’s Mont Blanc massif, and the Morteratsch Glacier in Switzerland’s Graubunden canton is believed to contain the bodies of 40 mountaineers.

Zuber described the “great relief” at being able to pass on the information to the families “who would otherwise never know with 100 percent certainty whether their loved one had perished on the mountain. Finally, when a corpse is discovered, you have an absolute guarantee,” he said.

He said that feeling had also been palpable earlier this year when a local woman was able to retrieve the bodies of her dead parents, the Dumoulins, who had disappeared when she was just four years old.

“We locals are obviously used to the mountains, but such discoveries are no less emotional for the people here,” he said.

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