The Ghosts of the Glacier

What happens when climate changes quickly in a previously frozen place, when the earth heats up and the mountains melt? In the high Swiss Alps, here's what happens: The ice gives up the bodies—and the secrets—of the past.

In the middle of the summer of 2017, a tower holding a ski lift above one of the intermediate trails had drifted slightly out of position, which was neither unexpected nor uncommon because both the tower and the trail are built on a glacier, and glaciers move. It does not matter that the ice has been tamed and groomed and that snow buses haul people across it to a monolith tottering at the edge: Beneath the surface snow, the glacier is constantly in motion, flexing and flowing with such force that anything on it, or under it, or in it, is going to move, too.

Usually the movements are imperceptible. Like stop-motion photography, the shifts and lurches aren't apparent until the frames are played back at speed. In 22 years working on the glacier, Theiler has seen the gradual but dramatic changes, the way it recedes year after year, the summer meltwater outpacing the winter snowfall. The slab creeps across a little less of Les Diablerets, a massif in the Alps of western Switzerland, each year, the blue-gray of the edges swirled like a tide pool on limestone slowly exposed by the seasons.

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