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  • Tucked between the Alps, at the border of Italy and Switzerland is a restaurant.

  • For tourists visiting from around the world, the Rifugio Guide del Cervino offers a break from winter sports for food, drinks, lodging, and as this reviewer called it: "A great Italian experience."

  • But something unexpected is happening here.

  • The nearby Theodul Glacier is melting.

  • And as it does, this little Italian ski lodge is on the verge of moving into Switzerland.

  • Most of Italy's land border follows the watershed along the Alps.

  • There is this imaginary line that divides the water that falls in the Mediterranean Sea in the south.

  • Or in the north, they go into the Black Sea via the Dunabe. Or to the North Sea.

  • That's Marco Ferrari. He wrote a book about this border with architect, Andrea Bagnato and visual designer, Elisa Pasqual.

  • This watershed line traces many of the highest peaks of the Alps, forming a natural border between countries.

  • Much of it is marked by over 8,000 boundary stones like these.

  • Some of which have been around since the 16th century.

  • But in the most rugged terrain, where physical markers are few and far between,

  • Swiss, Italian, and Austrian cartographic agencies have long maintained official border records with meticulous measurements and annotated pictures like these.

  • Some of these areas are on top of glaciers. Their surfaces are too reflective for satellites which are often used to measure borders.

  • The work by the surveyors is done manually.

  • So every few years, there's a commission of surveyors composed of members of both countries that actually walk the border and look how it has changed.

  • As early as the 1920s, surveyors noticed a "slow but progressive" shrinking among glaciers, and that "some had disappeared."

  • But by the 1990s, it became clear that summer melt had outpaced winter accumulation.

  • The surveyors realized that the glaciers were melting and not accumulating ice anymore.

  • This kind of cyclical change in the shape and geometry of the watershed became more and more permanent.

  • And as glaciers shifted, so did the watershed and so did the border.

  • Here's what that looks like.

  • On many Alpine peaks, a glacier ridge forms the watershed boundary line and thus the national border.

  • But as those glaciers melt, their highest point might shift, often dozens of meters away.

  • If they melt far enough, they even reveal underlying rock peaks which then become the border line.

  • These black X's mark the old national boundary between Italy and Switzerland.

  • But if you trace today's national boundary and compare it to old maps, you can see all the places where the boundary line has moved.

  • In the most extreme case yet in the Alps, shifts in the Theodul Glacier moved the border 150 meters.

  • That put this Italian ski lift on Swiss soil.

  • And the Rifugio Guide del Cervino might be next.

  • Typically when countries renegotiate borders, there's a careful process to make sure that neither country gains territory at the other's expense.

  • But recently, Italy signed a new type of agreement.

  • First with Austria in 2006, and then with Switzerland in 2009 that recognized the Alps as a "mobile border."

  • Acknowledging that the border was subject to changes in the natural world outside of those countries' control.

  • Fortunately, the Rifugio is the only inhabited place along this shifting border.

  • And if it becomes Swiss, it'll be subject to Swiss law, taxes, and customs.

  • They might have to change their wall plugs.

  • But for most nearby residents, the changes won't mean much.

  • But if we think about different areas of the world where similar processes are happening, for example, the Himalaya or the Andes,

  • these are completely different geopolitical situations in which also the scale of the phenomenon is much, much bigger, the histories are much more conflicted.

  • In the Himalayas, China and India disagree about their border and have fought several times over it as it continues to melt and shift.

  • And in the Andes, Chile and Argentina have long disagreed about their own melting border.

  • As climate change warms the planet and moves water-based borders, these conflicts could worsen.

  • Rivers, which make up over a third of the length of all international land boundaries, will be subject to extreme events that can change their course.

  • Coastlines will give way to rising seas, affecting exclusive economic zones, where a country's sovereignty extends into the ocean.

  • And glaciers, like in the Alps, will continue to melt.

  • The alpine mobile border is almost like a laboratory, a prototype of a condition that will happen more and more in a lot of different parts of the world.

  • Keep going!

Tucked between the Alps, at the border of Italy and Switzerland is a restaurant.

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B2 US Vox border switzerland boundary italy melt

The Italy-Switzerland border is melting

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    Jeff Chiao posted on 2022/04/13
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