Borders change

Glaciers can slide more than 30 feet per year.

In 1991, two German hikers on Italy's northern border with Austria came across a shriveled brown body facedown in the snow. Assuming the corpse belonged to an unlucky mountaineer, Erika and Helmut Simon took a photograph and continued trekking to their bed and breakfast in the Ötztal Alps, where they told their host about the discovery.

It took a team of forensic scientists four days to prise the body from the ice. When they eventually freed it, bits of leather, string, and hay emerged in the meltwater. The scientists collected the debris, zipped the corpse up in a body bag, and flew it by helicopter to nearby Vent, Austria, where it was put into a wooden coffin and driven by hearse to the Institute of Legal Medicine in Innsbruck.

Two days later, the archeologist Konrad Spindler noticed the unusual scraps gathered at the scene in a plastic bag: a piece of wood, taken from the body's right hand, and a four-inch-long copper blade. This was no lost hiker, but a 5,000-year-old man; his ax revealed that the Simons had discovered one of the best-preserved mummies in history.

In the media deluge that followed, a Viennese journalist dubbed the cadaver Ötzi after the nearby valley on the Austrian side of the border, but Italian authorities insisted he had been unearthed in their territory, instead calling him L'Uomo venuto dal ghiaccio ('The Iceman'). The borderline, mapped along the glaciers of Mt. Similaun — a giant ice sheet that can slide more than 30 feet per year — made it almost impossible to determine who owned the mummy. The next month, the border was re-surveyed for the first time since its post-WWI formation: The body had been discovered 300 feet into Italy.

Today, that border has shifted dramatically. It is natural for glaciers to slide, but the creep of global warming has melted it more rapidly than anyone could have foreseen. Eventually, the geo-defined frontier will likely disappear ...

It is normal for a portion of a glacier to melt and refreeze seasonally and to shift slightly each year. But in the past three decades, rising temperatures have brought a worryingly rapid thaw, particularly tangible on small glaciers like Grafferner. 'In one century, we have lost seventy percent of the glaciated surface,' said Aldino Bondesan, a coordinator for the Italian Glaciological Committee. 'Scientists don't have enough information to understand if this is a temporary change — induced by man, that's quite sure — or just a fluctuation that is going to recover in ten or one hundred years,' he said.

Condensed from the original in VICE magazine.