Wed, Aug 01, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Prayers answered after 339 years, maybe too much

The Guardian, VALAIS, Switzerland

You’ve got to hand it to the Catholic Church, sometimes its methods work. In 1678, the inhabitants of Fiesch in the Swiss canton of Valais, exasperated with the glaciers that loomed ever larger over their village, swallowing up their pasturage, inaugurated an annual pilgrimage. The hope was to banish the ice forms with chants, prayers and holy water. Several centuries later, their prayers appeared to have been answered.

Unfortunately, the glaciers have carried on retreating, and it’s not just the Fiesch and Aletsch ones, which happen to be the two largest in the Alps.

Swiss glaciers are currently shrinking, on average, by 10m a year, and the consequences of this are proving dire for some. The Giesen glacier in the Jungfrau massif has developed a large crack, and risks collapsing, potentially unleashing floodwaters on the village of Lauterbrunnen, while a melting glacier in the region of Zermatt has forced the Swiss and Italian authorities to renegotiate their frontier. The new one, which is expected to shift about 100m in Switzerland’s favor, will be announced later this year.

A few years ago, on behalf of Fiesch and other villages now deprived of the glaciers’ shadow, as well as the Valaisan tourist board, the Bishop of Sion petitioned the Vatican to authorize a change in the processional liturgy (which still takes place each year) so that the villagers could ask God to stop the ice shrinking instead.

The Holy See cogitated for a year before agreeing, and the modified prayers got their first airing at the procession yesterday.

On the off-chance they aren’t effective, however, residents might cheer themselves with the news that some groups have found positive uses for the disappearing glaciers — Swiss environmentalists have proposed that turbines powered by the meltwater replace nuclear as a source of energy and archeologists are having a field day, as the receding ice reveals treasures, including the wreck of a bombardier B17 belonging to the US Air Force that came to light last year in a valley above Klosters. It was damaged in a raid on Munich in 1944, and crashed on the return leg, killing the pilot and three members of the crew.

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