How archaeologists race to discover hidden treasures from melting glaciers

The rapid melting of the glaciers in the Alps is revealing all sorts of ancient artifacts. Researchers are racing against time to protect these findings before it’s too late.

The altitude makes breathing difficult, combined with the heavy backpack, the ascent becomes difficult where the ice has now melted. The ground is barren, except for some lichens clinging to the rocky soil, says one of the researchers.

They are heading towards the Lötschepass region in the Swiss Alps. Although the pass is at an altitude of 2,690 meters, it was historically a trade route that connected to the valley far below.

«Colleagues once found the remains of a medieval cow skeleton at the top of the pass“, says archaeologist Regula Gubler. “Radiocarbon dating revealed that the cow was from the 15th or 16th century. There are also written historical accounts from that time that the inhabitants used to pass their cattle to the market».

The cow skull was discovered about a decade ago by a team of archaeologists investigating the remains of a permanent ice patch in the pass. Since then, the site has yielded all sorts of treasures.

«Our most valuable finds were a whole collection of early Bronze Age artefacts from about 2000 BC.Gubler explains. “There was a box of wood, two bows, fragments of arrow shafts and three flint arrowheads. Inside the box were grains of cereal, which gives clues as to what raw materials these people used to cook. Looks like someone left half their gear up here when they left. The artifacts were very well made. These people knew how to use raw materials to create leather straps and bindings, for example.»

Melting glaciers and ice floes around the world have created an opportunity for archaeologists to expand and understand how mountain life has evolved over the millennia. An important find revealed by the melting ice was Ötzi “the Iceman” who lived more than 5,000 years ago.

Gubler found this bow in melted ice © Archaeological Service Berne/Rolf Wenger

But archaeologists recognize that such discoveries make researchers both happy and sad. Since Gubler has been involved in the research, the amount of ice has decreased dramatically. Now, in the summer months, there is just a small pool of water where there was ice for thousands of years.

«As an archaeologist it is incredibly exciting for me to find objects like thisGubler says. “But it’s also very sad. I would prefer the items to remain covered by snow and ice».

Glaciers are moving down, albeit extremely slowly. Thus, whatever objects the glacier incorporates are lost along the way. Of course when collected by the downhill moving ice, the finds can be trapped there again for thousands of years. As the finds emerge from the ice, the race to save the ancient treasures before they decay in the open is on. Gubler is the only archaeologist working on such sites in this area of ​​Switzerland.

All over the world, archaeologists face the same enormous challenge of surveying and mapping sites in time because thawing occurs so quickly.

The race is on

Climate change is responsible for the rapid melting of glaciers. The rate of melting in the Alps is faster than in other parts of the world, where the level of warming is greater than as we approach the equator.

«This year alone, we lost about 6 percent of the total volume of glacier ice still present in Switzerlandsays Matthias Huss, glaciologist and head of Glamos, an organization that monitors glaciers in Switzerland. “This is much more than ever before. Over the past decade, we’ve typically seen a 2 percent loss of ice volume per year. 2022 is three times more than the average of the last 10 years“, explains the professor.

The glaciers attributed the dramatic 2022 ice loss to a combination of three factors: minimal snowfall, heat waves and Saharan dust. With little snowfall during the winter, there was a thinner protective layer than usual until early summer, so the snow melted earlier, exposing the ice and thus ice loss began earlier in the season. Dust blown into the Mediterranean from the Sahara desert between March and May made the Alpine snow dirty, so it absorbed more solar radiation and melted faster. The final blow was the heat wave in the Alps from May to early September.

The rate of melting in the Alps is so severe that Glamos researchers are beginning to abandon some measuring stations. The station at Corvatsch is closed, as there is little ice left on the glacier. Glaciologists predict that 95 percent of the 4,000 or so glaciers that dot the Alps could disappear by the end of this century.

«2022 was worse than we expectedsays Huss. “For some time now, climate models have predicted that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and glacier models have shown us that such extreme melting rates are possible. But we wouldn’t expect to see such extreme events yet. The future has already become reality».

Workers at a Swiss ski resort cover the snow with a special blanket to prevent it from melting © Getty Images

Saving glaciers and lives

Globally, melting glaciers also threaten the lives of communities living nearby. Glaciers are like “water towers” ​​– they store snow that falls during the winter months and then gradually release it during the summer, providing drinking water, irrigation for crops and a cooling mechanism for power stations. Melting ice is also affecting the local tourism industry.

For example, the route to the summit of Mont Blanc becomes more treacherous earlier in the season due to the increased risk of rockfall. In July 2022, a glacier in Italy collapsed, killing 11 hikers. Severe melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has exacerbated deadly floods in Pakistan.

Extreme weather conditions call for extreme measures. There has been talk of large-scale geoengineering projects to help save the glaciers.

«Geoengineering projects work on a local scale, but they will never work on a glacial scalesays Huss. “One could put some white blankets over the ice under a rink to keep economic activities going. But these technologies will never be able to save an entire glacier, much less all glaciers in the Alps or around the world. We can save some of the glaciers in the Alps by reducing carbon emissions, it has been estimated that around a third of the volume of ice we have in the Alps today can be saved if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented. But that’s pretty ambitious. Even then, we will lose most of the glaciers in the Alps – assuming we see only limited further warming from today».

The aim of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C, ideally 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. Whether this can be achieved is a challenge for us all. Even if the Paris Agreement is implemented, temperatures are expected to rise for several decades before stabilizing in the second half of the century.

Source: Εναλλακτική Δράση by

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