What remains of the glaciers

The speakers of the evening; from left: Prof. Dr Boris Previšić, MA Veronika Studer-Kovàcs, Dr Michael Bütler and Prof. em. Dr Wilfried Haeberli together with their hosts Prof. Dr Roland Norer and Dr Romed Aschwanden.


At an event, the Institute looked at the topic of glaciers from very different perspectives.

They have shaped the landscape, people and culture since time immemorial: glaciers. Whether as a postcard subject, a tourist destination, a sports attraction or an object in words and pictures, there is something that fascinates people about this archive of the earth's history that has always existed and can be experienced in real life. Climate change, accelerated by human activity, ensures that the eternal ice will be a thing of the past in many parts of the world by the end of this century.

What can be done to ensure that the alpine peaks are not only allowed to continue to redden in the Swiss Psalm, but also in nature? What challenges, opportunities and risks does what remains of the glacier hold? Can this "new emergence" be just as fascinating? The Uri Institute "Cultures of the Alps" of the University of Lucerne examined this development from different perspectives at an evening event last Monday. Institute director Prof. Dr. Roland Norer welcomed around forty people to the event in the Uristier Hall in Altdorf.

Alpine glaciers suffer particularly

Prof. em. Dr. Wilfried Haeberli from the Institute of Geography at the University of Zurich started the discussion. In his presentation "Glaciers in Accelerating Retreat, Scientific Aspects", he used pictures and figures to impressively visualise how massively the glaciers have shrunk in recent years due to climate change - especially the Alpine glaciers.

"If we don't put a stop to it, by the end of this century there will only be small remnants of glaciers left in the Alps and worldwide," the speaker said. Haeberli explained how satellite images, model calculations and digital models can be used to simulate scenarios for the consequences of glacier retreat. "Likewise, natural risks are changing in these areas. These must be observed and reassessed. Not all hazards are visible," he warned. For example, rocks that were previously stabilised by the glacier ice can loosen and tumble down. Or: The melted ice forms new mountain lakes, which can create tidal waves and flood hazards.

However, Haeberli also sees opportunities, for example in the generation of energy through hydropower, in the form of new fresh water reserves and tourist attractions. There are multiple interests and conflicts that arise, which must be weighed up in the near future. The scientist sums up: "Change is rapid. It is the task of science to model future development and to make it available to policy-makers as a basis for decision-making."

Cultural studies intermezzo

Prof. Dr. Boris Previšić, Director of the Institute, and Veronika Studer-Kovàcs introduced the audience to glaciers with a different approach. The two cultural scientists gave a lecture on the characteristics and roles attributed to glaciers in our recent cultural history.

As a "joyful terror", as an object that reflects the observer's feeling back to the object, as a kind of living creature that coughs and cracks or as an archive of world history that visualises the past in the future - glaciers are equally the subject of narratives and reflections by naturalists, philosophers or contemporary musicians like Dodo.  

Who owns the glaciers?

Probably few people ask themselves this question, but Dr. Michael Bütler is different: the only Swiss glacial lawyer deals with legal relationships on glaciers and legal issues surrounding the protection of glaciers and against glacier hazards. "For example, the Civil Code does not define glaciers and firn precisely, but it does define them as uncultivable, unusable and ownerless land," he explained. Owners are the cantons on whose territory the glaciers are located, he said.

Bütler showed that this can give rise to a wide range of legal questions and cases. For example, when the demarcation of cultivable and non-cultivable land is under discussion in land register surveys. Or in the case of the Rhone Glacier, which became a special case due to ancient rights and is still private property today as an exception.

He also had a lot to say about legal issues surrounding protection against glacier hazards and the protection of glaciers. Who bears the responsibility if people are killed when a glacier breaks off? How far should tourist use with mountain railways, heliskiing etc. be allowed to go? "Climate change will create new glacial lakes that are mainly located in protected areas. This results in conflicting goals between use and conservation of high mountain landscapes," says the lawyer. "The question is, when are we ready to act with effective measures?"

A backpack full of impressions

Dr Romed Aschwanden, Executive Director of the Institute, closed the event and moderated the Q&A session that followed. "Even if the glaciers disappear, they remain fascinating and incomprehensible. I'm taking a huge backpack of impressions home with me."