Andrea Fischer drags the chainsaw’s blade through the ice while keeping her feet firmly planted on the glacier, sending ice shards flying in her direction. A mummified chamois, a cute goat-antelope hybrid perfectly adapted to the Alps, was found inside the circle. This one was only a tiny girl, not much taller than two feet.
Fischer, an Alpine glaciologist from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research in Innsbruck, states that they estimate her age to be around 500 years.
The skin is still stretched taut and leathery across the animal’s spine and ribcage despite having fallen off the animal’s head, pulling one horn along with it, and exposing her deep eye sockets. Her hooved legs are covered in tufts of walnut-colored fur that are rippling in the wind; these limbs are strong and agile, and in life they would have hurled her from rock to rock. She drew them near while she was dying. She had presumably just turned two.
It’s remarkable, adds Fischer, who has spent more than two decades researching Austria’s melting glaciers, “and it’s incredible that she’s sitting exactly where we do our research and that we passed right when it was breaking out of the ice.” More over 11,000 feet up on the Gepatschferner, a sizable glacier near the Italian border, a colleague by the name of Martin Stocker-Waldhuber noticed chamois horns poking out of melting ice while monitoring a meteorological station.
This summer, the Alps’ glaciers are melting at a rate that has never before occurred. The sparse snowfall of last winter melted early, leaving the ice vulnerable to the recent heat waves that have swept across the continent. According to Fischer, significantly more ice than in any previous year would have melted from the surface of glaciers in the eastern Alps by the end of the season—up to seven meters, or 23 feet.
Even though this dramatic loss is heartbreaking, there is also exciting anticipation: What additional perfectly preserved artifacts from the past might be found beneath the ice?
Long-lost hikers and frozen soldiers from the high-altitude conflict between Italy and Austria during World War I have both been discovered in the Alps in recent years. In the roughly 150,000 soldiers who perished, many were either frozen to death in snowstorms or buried by avalanches. In the ice, several have been discovered partially mummified.
Albert Zink, director of the centre for mummy research at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, predicts that as the glaciers melt, there will be more of these discoveries and perhaps even more human remains in the ice. Actually, I think it’s pretty plausible.
He claims that everyone is hoping to find another prehistoric person similar to the one he has been researching for more than ten years: tzi the Iceman, who was discovered by accident in 1991. Fischer’s chamois is ten times younger than tzi, who is five thousand years old, yet this summer the Alps are seeing the melting of ice that has been there for many years.
The chamois might only be the start.
To the chamois with a helicopter
On the morning of August 4, photographer Ciril Jazbec and I flew in a chopper with Fischer and her group to the peak of Gepatschferner, where the clouds were at eye level.
In fact, Stocker-Waldhuber initially noticed the horns poking through the ice last summer, but not enough of the animal was showing to allow for a safe extraction before the winter snow buried it once more. The researchers took advantage of a brief window of opportunity to collect the chamois after much more melt this summer.
When Fischer initially told me about the discovery, she remarked, “We’ve got two days, maybe three.”
At 11,500 feet, the weather is unpredictable and helicopter flights are too risky. If bearded vultures circling above the glacier don’t eat it first, the mummy will soon decay once fully exposed to the air by the melting ice.
Fischer is consequently unable to work as meticulously as an archaeologist. She uses her chainsaw and ice axe to break the frozen chamois free, then she lifts it off the ice and onto a piece of plastic. She takes note of the repulsive smell before immediately wrapping the mummy and taping it shut.
Fischer, an Alpine native, was a teenager when he first ventured across a glacier. She claims that most of the ice is long gone.
The 4,000 glaciers in the Alps have largely been receding since about 1850, but man-made climate change has significantly sped up this process. According to a special assessment released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019, most glaciers will have lost the vast majority of their ice by 2100, leaving only little spots that may or may not be called glaciers.
All of this is known to glaciologists like Fischer. “I don’t think any of us could have ever envisioned how dramatic this summer could be,” she continues.
As the sun rises higher on Gepatschferner, the dripping and cracking sounds get louder, as if the glacier is singing its own requiem. We are staggering through ankle-deep puddles by lunchtime, long before we board the helicopter for the ride down the mountain.
According to Fischer, there are still eight meters of ice under the chamois that is 6,000 years old. She predicts that this area will shed 4,000 years’ worth of ice this year.
Such discoveries are unusual.
I had accompanied Fischer earlier in the summer on a trip to the Jamtal glacier on the Austrian-Swiss border, another location for her research. She pointed us a crumbling, overgrown stone enclosure created by ancient humans to defend cows, sheep, and goats from bears and wolves as we ascended up the narrow valley. The Alps are covered in such remnants of long-gone towns.
Much of the eastern Alps were ice-free about 6,000 years ago. People resided on the mountain slopes because the valleys were heavily wooded wetlands. But by the time Tzi was shot by an arrow and died on the Similaun glacier, just a few kilometres southeast of Gepatschferner, 5,000 years ago, the ice had started to develop once more.
Tzi was initially thought to be a hiker or skier from the 20th century who had perished in an accident upon his finding 31 years prior. He attempted to pull him out of the ice but was wounded in the hip by a nearby police officer. His bow was split in two to make it easier to bring it down the mountains. He was then dismembered by the local mortician in order to fit him in a coffin.
Scientists were astounded to learn that Tzi was an ancient, entirely intact mummy. How badly the retrieval of this archaeological treasure was handled now appears absurd. It had never before been discovered in a glacier. According to Norwegian glacial archaeologist Lars Holger Pil, there is a valid reason for this.
Pil claims that while though innumerable people and animals have undoubtedly perished on glaciers, we shouldn’t anticipate to find many of them because a glacier’s ice is always moving, gently eroding into the valley while being replenished by new snow at the top. Over many years, the ice would transport both human and animal remains.
The moving ice “would have harmed and crushed their bodies,” Pil claims.
However, since the discovery of Tzi, researchers have come to understand that there are exceptions to this rule: immobile areas next to or even within the moving ice sea. The bedrock is flat, the ice is cold enough to freeze to it, but not too thick that it starts to flow from its own weight, in certain locations.
In his home county of Innlandet, Norway, Pil has counted more than 60 stationary ice spots. He claims that finding a human mummy in one of them is his “holy grail.”
An additional Tzi this year?
Fischer’s chamois is now securely kept in a – 20°C freezer outside of Innsbruck in the Ferdinandeum, the state museum of Tyrol. The animal is awaiting a CT scan and an examination of the interior of its digestive tract. Researchers aim to learn more about the little-known history of this species and potentially discover why the two animals traveled out onto glaciers and perished there by examining it along with a 400-year-old chamois mummy that Zink’s team recovered in 2020.
Peter Morass, the head taxidermist at Ferdinandeum, admitted to me, “So far, the nicest item I worked on was a panda from the zoo. But this chamois takes the cake. The Innsbruck museum will eventually include an unique exhibit about the chamois.
The two chamois offer Zink the chance to learn more about the mummification techniques used to create Tzi as well as how to locate and conserve ice mummies worldwide. His research center has previously created inexpensive conservation enclosures that can keep organic specimens sealed and stable.
So that we are ready for more to come out, Zink explains.
Fischer’s idea never included finding mummies. The immobile areas of glaciers piqued her interest as a glaciologist for a different reason: these are locations where she can drill into old ice and recover a record of how the climate in the Alps has warmed and cooled over the millennia.
But given how quickly the planet is warming, she recognizes that her job as a glaciologist has put her in a prime position to discover the next tzi.
She has located approximately 10 still areas in the Austrian Alps and wants to fly over them later this summer when the glaciers are at their peak melting. She’ll be looking for indications that another iceman—or icewoman—is breaking through the darkness on the ice.
If it occurs, she predicts that it will be this summer.
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