Andrea Fischer stands firmly on the glacier as she circles the ice with her chainsaw, sending shards flying toward her face. A chamois, a cute goat-antelope hybrid that does well in the Alps, has been preserved inside the circle. A young girl, no more than two feet tall, she was clearly just a child.
Fischer, an Alpine glaciologist at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research in Innsbruck, estimates the glacier’s age at around 500 years.
The skin has peeled away from the animal’s head, revealing her deep eye sockets and horn, but it is still stretched taut and leathery over her spine and rib cage. Her powerful, nimble hooves would have propelled her from rock to rock in life, and now they’re covered in tufts of fur that sway in the wind, revealing a walnut color. Last of all, she hugged them. She was probably two years old at the time.
Fischer, who has spent over two decades studying Austria’s receding glaciers, exclaims, “It’s incredible, and it’s incredible that she’s sitting exactly where we do our research, and that we passed right when it was coming out of the ice.” Above the Italian border on the large glacier of Gepatschferner, a coworker named Martin Stocker-Waldhuber spotted the horns of a chamois poking out of the melting ice.
This summer, glaciers across the Alps have been melting at an alarming rate. The few snows that fell last winter melted early, leaving the ice vulnerable to the recent heat waves that have swept across the continent. Fischer estimates that by the end of the season, the glaciers in the eastern Alps will have lost as much as seven meters of ice, or about 23 feet.
Despite the tragic nature of this loss, an exciting hope arises: What other perfectly preserved artifacts from antiquity could possibly be waiting for us beneath the ice?
Long-lost hikers and frozen soldiers from a World War I battle fought at high altitude between Italy and Austria have both been discovered in the Alps in recent years. A large number of the approximately 150,000 men who lost their lives were either buried by avalanches or became too cold to survive the harsh winter weather. The ice has preserved some to the point that they are only partially reanimated.
Albert Zink, director of the institute for mummy studies at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, predicts that as glaciers recede, more of these discoveries—and perhaps even other humans—will emerge from the ice. “It’s highly probable,” he said.
He says that everyone is keeping their fingers crossed for the discovery of another ancient human like tzi the Iceman, who was unearthed in 1991 through sheer luck. tzi is 5,000 years old, or ten times as old as Fischer’s chamois, but this summer’s heat is melting away thousands of years’ worth of ice in the Alps.
The chamois might be the first of many surprises.
The chamois gets a chop.
On the morning of August 4th, photographer Ciril Jazbec and I joined Fischer and her crew for the helicopter ride to the peak of Gepatschferner, where the clouds sit at eye level.
In fact, Stocker-Waldhuber first noticed the horns poking through the ice last summer, but at the time, only a small portion of the animal was visible, making a safe extraction impossible before the snows of winter returned. The scientists snatched the chamois during a brief window of opportunity after significant melt this summer.
Fischer said to me, “We’ve got two days, perhaps three,” when she first informed me of the discovery.
Extreme weather changes at 11,500 feet make chopper flights too risky. When the mummy is finally exposed to the air thanks to the melting ice, it will quickly decompose—that is, if bearded vultures that have been circling above the glacier don’t get to it first.
The result is that Fischer can’t be as thorough in his work as an archaeologist would like. She uses her chainsaw and ice axe to cut the frozen chamois free, then she carefully lifts it off the ice and places it on a plastic sheet. She takes note of the putrid odor and swiftly wraps the mummy before sealing it off with tape.
Fischer, a native Alpiner, made his first glacier crossing at the age of 16. Apparently, she says, most of the ice has melted away.
Most of the 4,000 Alps glaciers have been melting away since 1850, but climate change caused by humans has hastened the process. According to a special report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019, most will have lost the vast majority of their ice by the year 2100, leaving only tiny patches that may or may not be called glaciers.
Glaciologists are well-aware of all of this, including Fischer. None of us, she says, “could have ever imagined how dramatic this summer could be.”
The sounds of dripping and cracking on Gepatschferner become more audible as the sun rises higher, as if the glacier were playing its own requiem. We are stomping through ankle-deep puddles by noon, hours before we board the helicopter for the flight down the mountain.
According to Fischer, there is still ice that is about eight meters thick under the chamois and it is at least six thousand years old. According to her calculations, 4,000 years’ worth of ice will melt from this location this year.
Such discoveries are extremely unusual.
I went with Fischer to one of her research sites, the Jamtal glacier on the Austrian-Swiss border, earlier in the summer. We were hiking up a narrow valley when she pointed out a stone encirclement, now overgrown and crumbling, that had been constructed by ancient humans to keep bears and wolves away from herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Such evidence of long-ago communities can be found all over the Alps.
The eastern Alps were largely devoid of ice around 6,000 years ago. Because the valleys were densely forested swamps, the mountain slopes were where people lived. But by 5,000 years ago, when Ötzi was pierced by an arrow and bled to death on Similaun glacier, just a few miles southeast of Gepatschferner, the ice had begun to grow again.
At the time of his discovery 31 years ago, tzi was at first thought to be a hiker or skier from the 20th century who had met an untimely end. The local police officer who was trying to free him from the ice hacked into his hip. His bow was snapped in half so he could be brought down the mountain more easily. The local undertaker broke his arm so he could be buried in a coffin.
Scientists were stunned to discover tzi was an ancient, fully preserved mummy, but the recovery of this archaeological treasure was a complete disaster. Nothing like it had ever been found in a glacier. According to Norwegian glacial archaeologist Lars Holger Pil, that is for good reason.
Pil explains that although countless humans and animals have perished on glaciers, we shouldn’t expect to find many of their remains because the ice in a glacier is constantly moving, slowly flowing down into the valley and being replenished with fresh snow at the top. Animals and people alike would be dragged along with the ice for centuries.
They would have been crushed and damaged by the moving ice, Pil says.
However, since the discovery of tzi, scientists have learned that there are always going to be outliers: still areas next to or even in the middle of a moving sea of ice. The bedrock must be flat, and the ice must be cold enough to freeze to it, but not so thick that it begins to flow.
In his home county of Innlandet in Norway, Pil has spotted more than sixty areas of stagnant ice. He considers it his “holy grail” to find a human mummy in one of them.
When will we find another tzi this year?
Fischer’s chamois is now safely stored in a minus 20ºC freezer outside Innsbruck, in the research center of Ferdinandeum, the Tyrolean state museum. Currently, the animal is in preparation for a CT scan and intestinal examination. Scientists hope to learn more about the obscure history of this species by studying it and a 400-year-old chamois mummy that Zink’s team will retrieve in 2020. Both animals perished after venturing out onto glaciers.
Peter Morass, the head taxidermist at Ferdinandeum, told me, “So far, the best thing I worked on was a panda from the zoo.” Nonetheless, this chamois is superior to anything else. The chamois will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the museum in Innsbruck.
Zink sees the two chamois as a chance to learn more about mummification processes similar to the one that created tzi, as well as the best methods for recovering and preserving ice mummies around the world. His institution has already created affordable conservation boxes that can keep organic specimens sealed and stable.
So that, as Zink puts it, “when more come out, we are prepared.”
Fischer’s original plan did not include the discovery of any mummies. She is a glaciologist, so she is interested in the still areas of glaciers for a different reason: to extract a record of the Alps’ warming and cooling over the millennia by drilling into the old ice there.
But as the planet’s temperature rises rapidly, she knows that her training as a glaciologist puts her in prime position to unearth the next tzi.
She plans to fly over the still areas she has discovered, numbering around ten in the Austrian Alps, later this summer, when the glaciers will be at their peak melt. She’ll be looking for any telltale signs of an iceman (or icewoman) making their way out into the open.
She predicts that this summer will be the time when it finally occurs.
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