Climate Change Affecting Time to Retrieve Artifacts in Swiss Glaciers

By JOHN HEILPRIN | June 25, 2014

Swiss scientists say only decades remain for alpinists and hikers to retrieve items covered for hundreds or even thousands of years by ice which is now melting.

With Swiss glaciers expected to melt away within a half-century, a Swiss cultural institute and a graduate student in the canton (state) of Graubuenden have launched a pilot project through the end of 2015 to gather artifacts trapped long ago in the ice that are now turning up. The clock is ticking, they say, because once the ice melts away the items will no longer be preserved.

Leandra Naef, who has a master’s degree in prehistoric archaeology, told Swiss news agency that the project in eastern Switzerland’s mountains “has to happen now, or else it will be too late, if it’s not already too late.”

The project encourages people to turn over things such as wood or clothing they might encounter in eastern Switzerland, where the Swiss National Park is located. It aims is to narrow down likely sites where archaeologists could search further. “For us archaeologists, it’s of course an absolute El Dorado,” Naef said.

Martin Grosjean, executive director of the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern, told that Switzerland’s glaciers and ice patches are melting “extremely quickly.”

Mountaineers in recent decades have found goatskin leggings in the Swiss Alps and a corpse in the melting ice of South Tyrol, each about 5,000 years old. Grosjean says there is only “a window of opportunity of several years or perhaps one or two decades” to find more items before the glaciers no longer preservethem.

“In 50 years, all these glaciers will be gone,” he said. “We know that today.”

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