Did You Know Borders in the High Alps Are Moving?

Owen Christopher looks into how climate change is possibly causing border disputes.

Satellite image of the Italy-Switzerland-Austria border highlighting change since 1921.

A Melting Border

The Theodul Glacier is melting, pushing borders along with it. Most of Italy’s land border follows the watershed along the northern alps. This watershed line traces many of the peaks of the Alps, forming a natural border between Italy, Switzerland, and Austria.

This border is marked by over 8,000 boundary stones (some of which have been around since the 16th century). In the most rugged terrain, where physical markers are few and far between, cartographers have to physically check the border. Swiss, Italian, and Austrian cartographic agencies have long maintained official border records. These contain meticulous measurements to record the borders’ precise location. Some of these areas are on top of glaciers. Their surfaces are too reflective for satellites which are often used to measure borders.

But since the 1920s surveyors have noticed a slow but progressive retreat of some of these glacial borders. Summer melt had outpaced winter accumulation. As glaciers shifted, so did the watershed, and so did the Italy-Switzerland-Austria border.

Here’s how that works:

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 down enough, they may even reveal underlying rock peaks, which then become the new borderline. In the most extreme case yet in the Alps, shifts in the Theodul Glacier apparently moved the border 150 meters.

Satellite image of the Italy-Switzerland border highlighting the greatest shift of 150 meters.

A New “Mobile Border”

Typically when countries renegotiate borders they make sure that neither country is gaining territory at the others expense. Italy recently 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. This “mobile border” acknowledges that the border was subject to changes in the natural world, outside of any country’s control. Luckily there aren’t many people living along the border that are affected by this. Still there is national pride, which can sometimes get dicey and lead to unnecessary tensions.

Similar things are beginning to happen in other parts of the world. In the Himalayas, China and India have had disagreements about their border as it begins to melt and shift. 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 all international land boundaries will be subject to extreme events that could change their course. Coastlines will give way to rising seas, affecting exclusive economic zones where a country’s sovereignty extends into the ocean. Glaciers, like in the Alps, will continue to melt. New agreements like the “mobile border” will become more common if we are to adapt to this changing, melting, new world of ours.

Reporting by Owen Christopher of Reynolds Sandbox



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