EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Extremely warm temperatures are melting Switzerland’s glaciers, leading to some surprising geopolitical challenges.

The melting of Switzerland's glaciers has been accelerating in recent years. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
The melting of Switzerland's glaciers has been accelerating in recent years. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Receding glaciers, which are now shrinking at a faster rate than before, are re-defining borders between Switzerland and Italy.

The border between Italy and Switzerland runs for 800.2 kilometres, much of which is mountainous. 

Parts of it run along glaciers which have formed part of the landscape for generations, but are now melting. 

For instance, melting snow and ice on and around the famed Matterhorn, which straddles both countries, is literally moving the borders.

How are the borders changing?

Alain Wicht, who is in charge of national border layouts at the Federal Office of Topography (Swisstopo), said it remains to be seen what the long-term implications are of the changes. 

Around two-thirds of Switzerland’s 7,000lm-long border is made up of natural borders, such as lakes, glaciers, rivers and mountains.

At present, Switzerland has not seen a net loss or a net gain of territory. 

“In some places, Switzerland has gained territory and in others it has lost it.”

However, in the future, it appears Switzerland is set to grow. 

Unlike administratively drawn borders, these can move when the land in question moves, i.e. in in the instance of landslides, a river shrinking or changing course – and the melting of glaciers. 

Pursuant to international law, when artificial borders are redrawn, a country cannot gain or lose territory – i.e. they must receive some additional territory to compensate for a loss. 

This is not the case with natural borders, which can see a country gain territory when the natural feature representing the border moves. 

According to Swiss tabloid Blick, melting glaciers will see Switzerland gain more land

“Overall, however, Switzerland should benefit from climate change, at least in terms of territory gains.”

“Glaciers are mainly found on the northern slopes. If they melt, the watershed line moves south. The surface of Switzerland will therefore increase.

What do the shifts mean for Switzerland?

This drift has logistical and practical implications, according to Wicht.

READ MORE: Why Switzerland’s glaciers are melting faster than usual this summer

For instance, “when an accident occurs, the question arises as to which country is responsible. And when train lines or roads cross the Alps, it should be clear whether they should stick to Italian or Swiss regulations for their construction and maintenance”.

The shift also affects the Testa-Grigia hut above Zermatt, according to a report in Blick on Sunday. 

The glacier surrounding the refuge has melted heavily in recent years.

Switzerland and Italy must agree on the location of the border to determine which country administers the hut.

There are also VAT implications depending on which country the hut is deemed to be in. 

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‘By a substantial margin’: How summer 2022 was Europe’s hottest on record

The summer of 2022 was the hottest in Europe's recorded history, with the continent suffering blistering heatwaves and the worst drought in centuries, the European Commission's satellite monitor said on Thursday.

'By a substantial margin': How summer 2022 was Europe's hottest on record

The five hottest years on record have all come since 2016 as climate change drives ever longer and stronger hot spells and drier soil conditions.

And that created tinderbox forests, increasing the risk of devastating and sometimes deadly wildfires.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said temperatures in Europe had been the “highest on record for both the month of August and the summer (June-August) as a whole”.

Data showed August was the hottest on the continent since records began in 1979 by a “substantial margin”, beating the previous record set in August 2021 by 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 Fahrenheit). Temperatures from June through to August 2022 were 1.34C hotter than the historical 1991-2020 average, while August itself was 1.72C higher than average.

READ ALSO: ‘A code red’: Will Europeans change their habits after climate crisis reality check?

An aerial view taken on August 4, 2022 in Les Brenets shows the dry bed of Brenets Lake (Lac des Brenets), part of the Doubs River, a natural border between eastern France and western Switzerland, as much of Europe bakes in a third heatwave since June. – The river has dried up due to a combination of factors, including geological faults that drain the river, decreased rainfall and heatwaves. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

That puts summer in Europe well within the temperature range at which the Paris Agreement on climate change seeks to limit global heating.

The 2015 accord commits nations to cap average global temperatures at “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and to strive for a safer guardrail of 1.5C.

Although satellite data only stretches back a few decades, a Copernicus spokeswoman told AFP the service was confident that 2022 was the hottest summer in Europe going as far back as 1880 — at the early stage of the industrial age.

Europe has been battered by a string of heatwaves this year, with temperature records tumbling in many countries and the mercury topping 40C for the first time in Britain.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said last month that 2022 was already a record year for wildfires, with nearly 660,000 hectares torched in Europe since January.

‘Summer of extremes’

CAMS said fires in France had seen the highest levels of carbon pollution from wildfires since records began in 2003.

The EU said last month that the current drought parching the continent was the worst in at least 500 years.

The European Commission’s Global Drought Observatory latest bulletin said 47 percent of the continent is currently covered by drought warnings — meaning the soil is drying out.

An additional 17 percent is under drought alert, meaning that vegetation is showing signs of stress, fuelling concerns about the continent’s autumn harvest.

“An intense series of heatwaves across Europe, paired with unusually dry conditions, have led to a summer of extremes with records in terms of temperature, drought and fire activity in many parts of Europe, affecting society and nature in various ways,” said senior C3S scientist Freja Vamborg.

“Data shows that we’ve not only had record August temperatures for Europe but also for summer, with the previous summer record only being one year old.”

On a global level, August 2022 was the joint warmest August on record. The average temperature was 0.3C higher than the 1991-2020 average for the month, the monitor said.