Why melting glaciers affect us all

More human remains and objects emerge as glaciers retreat

Switzerland’s melting glaciers have revealed more unexpected, macabre secrets than ever this summer: human remains and plane wreckage trapped in the ice for over 50 years. Such discoveries are set to multiply in the coming years, says Robert Bolognesi, a snow science expert.

This content was published on August 22, 2022 minutes

As can be seen in the video above, amid record high temperatures in the Alps, in early August hikers found human bones on the Chessjen glacier in the southern canton of Valais. A week earlier, another body was found on the Stockji glacier near the resort of Zermatt, north-west of the Matterhorn.

In the first week of August, a mountain guide also discoveredExternal link the wreckage of a plane that crashed on the Aletsch glacier, near the Jungfrau and Mönch mountain peaks, 50 years ago.

Closer examination revealed the wreckage to be that of a small Piper Cherokee aircraft that crashed in the area on June 30, 1968, carrying a teacher, a chief medical officer and his son, all from Zurich. The bodies were recovered at the time, but the wreckage was not.

Human remains and other objects found on glaciers in canton Valais are carefully collected and studied by police and forensic experts using DNA samples, dental records and radiological techniques. The local police keep a list of about 300 cases of people who have gone missing since 1925. It is thought that two-thirds of them disappeared in the mountains or on glaciers.

More bodies

Some experts believe that more and more bodies and objects will emerge on glaciers as the huge ice sheets continue to retreat at an accelerating rate.

“Climate change increases the melting of glaciers and accelerates the movement of a glacier,” Robert Bolognesi, a snow scientist and director of Meteorisk, told Swiss public television, RTS. “So bodies will be directed more quickly towards the bottom of the glacier.”

And with more people hiking in the mountains and crossing glaciers, the numbers are likely to rise.

“There will be many more remains appearing from now on than we have seen in the past,” said Bolognesi.

As Swiss glaciers thin and recede, rare archaeological objects trapped in the ice, such as Neolithic wooden bows and quartz arrowheads, also frequently emerge. The Valais authorities have a special archaeological service that collects and researches the finds.

They have also developed a mobile phone appExternal link – the Icewatcher app – to encourage the public to report any unusual objects encountered while out in the mountains or on glaciers.

After a winter with relatively little snowfall, the Swiss Alps have experienced a severe summer heatwave. Scientists warn that almost all the ice sheets in the Swiss Alps could disappear by 2090 due to climate change. 

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