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CLIMATE CRISIS

How climate change is creating disputes on the Swiss-Italian border

The climate change-induced melting of glaciers is moving Switzerland's borders, leading to new disputes over land and buildings.

The Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak between Zermatt Switzerland and Breuil-Cervinia, Italy has become the site of a potential border dispute. Climate change is shifting the Swiss and Italian border. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
The Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak between Zermatt Switzerland and Breuil-Cervinia, Italy has become the site of a potential border dispute. Climate change is shifting the Swiss and Italian border. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Way up in the snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to a melting glacier, putting the location of an Italian mountain lodge in dispute.

The borderline runs along a drainage divide — the point at which meltwater will run down either side of the mountain towards one country or the other.

But the Theodul Glacier’s retreat means the watershed has crept towards the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 3,480-metre (11,417-foot) Testa Grigia peak — and it is gradually sweeping underneath the building.

EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the refuge’s restaurant, the light flooding in from outside.

The menu is in Italian, not German, and priced in euros rather than Swiss francs. Nonetheless, at the counter, he orders a slice of pie and asks: “So — are we in Switzerland or in Italy?”

It is a question worth asking as it has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations that started in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year — but the details remain secret. 

A sign on the Swiss border near Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

A sign on the Swiss border near Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Sleeping on the Swiss side

When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely in Italian territory.

But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically perched in southern Switzerland.

The issue has come to the fore because the area, which relies on tourism, is located at the top of one of the world’s largest ski resorts, with a major new development including a cable car station being constructed a few metres away.

An agreement was hammered out in Florence in November 2021 but the outcome will only be revealed once it is rubber-stamped by the Swiss government — which will not happen before 2023.

“We agreed to split the difference,” Alain Wicht, chief border official at Switzerland’s national mapping agency Swisstopo told AFP.

His job includes looking after the 7,000 boundary markers along landlocked Switzerland’s 1,935-kilometre border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.

Wicht attended the negotiations, where both parties made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side came out winners, at least nobody lost”, he said.

Line in the snow

Where the Italian-Swiss border traverses Alpine glaciers, the frontier follows the watershed line. But the Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010.

That exposed the rock underneath to the ice, altering the drainage divide and forcing the two neighbours to redraw around a 100-metre-long stretch of their border.

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

Wicht said that such adjustments were frequent and generally settled by comparing readings by surveyors from the border countries, without getting politicians involved.

“We are squabbling over territory that isn’t worth much,” he said. But he added that this “is the only place where we suddenly had a building involved”, giving “economic value” to the land. His Italian counterparts declined to comment “due to the complex international situation”.

Former Swisstopo chief Jean-Philippe Amstein said such disputes are typically resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equivalent surface area and value.

In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in obtaining a piece of glacier,” he explained, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area”.

Wine stays Italian

While the outcome remains secret, the refuge’s caretaker, 51-year-old Lucio Trucco, has been told it will stay on Italian soil. “The refuge remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” he said. “The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian, and the taxes are Italian.”

The years of negotiation have delayed the refuge’s renovation — the villages either side of the border have not been able to issue a building permit.

The works will therefore not be completed in time for the scheduled opening of a new cable car up the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn mountain in late 2023.

The slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt. While some mid-altitude resorts are preparing for the end of Alpine skiing due to global warming, skiing is possible throughout the summer on the Zermatt-Cervinia slopes, even if such activities contribute to the glacier’s retreat.

“That’s why we have to enhance the area here because it will surely be the last one to die,” said Trucco.

For now, on Swisstopo’s maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border remains a dashed line as it passes the refuge.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

‘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.

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