Laurent Gillieron/AP
Aletschgletscher glacier, Switzerland

Climate Change Leads to Altered Borders, Potential Conflict

May 13, 2009 02:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
As European glaciers melt due to global warming, Italy and Switzerland have been forced to redraw borders. Similarly affected countries, such as India and China, might not be as adaptable.

Adjustments in Italy, Switzerland

Alpine glaciers in Europe have shrunk so dramatically and quickly that Italy and Switzerland are being forced to shift their mountainous borders in response to a law proposed and approved by Italy's parliament late last month. Both countries have been open to the alteration, but experts warn that if the situation is mirrored in other parts of the world, the outcome could be less amicable.

According to Rossella Lorenzi of Discovery News, the current Italian-Swiss border has been in place since 1861, and has been modified only occasionally since then; in the 1970s, construction of the Switzerland-Italy highway resulted in significant changes. But the Italian Military Geographic Institute and the Office of Topography in Switzerland have determined that "radical changes are needed now," as the glaciers' ice-encased, snow-covered and permafrost area known as the "cryosphere" has severely deteriorated since 2004, Lorenzi reported. No citizenship changes will result from the shifted border.
According to the Economist, the impending border agreement "will be the second of three made necessary by the shrinking Alpine glaciers," as Italy has reached a deal with Austria and has discussed a similar agreement with France. Notably, the fact that the borders are considered temporary because countries have taken into account future impacts of global warming "has for the first time introduced the concept of a moveable border."

According to Lorenzi, European countries have thus far been "ready to acknowledge the radical influence of climate change on their borders," but a blog called Global Warming is Real points out that the result could be different elsewhere.

The compromise reached by Italy and its neighbors exemplifies how nations can peacefully respond to changes wrought by global warming. But, asks Than Hansen of Global Warming is Real, how will "regions straining (or soon to strain) over scarce resources" react?

Hansen thinks that "large scale ice and glacier melt" could "trigger widespread conflict" in certain areas already struggling to maintain a fresh water and oil supply, and that use crucial shipping routes. He points to Kashmir, the Indian-Chinese border area "and perhaps even the Northwest Passage" as areas of potential conflict.

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Background: Melting glaciers

The issue of glacial melt has been a topic of discussion for some time, and particularly over the past two years as the United Nations has taken notice.

Last September, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) urged the international community to improve the monitoring of glaciers and ice caps in certain regions of the world, including Central Asia, the Tropics and the Polar regions. UNEP released a report at that time warning of glacial shrinking and thinning at an alarming rate due to climate change—double the rate before the turn of the millennium. As a result, the report warned that the water supplies of millions of people could be put at risk.

Spain is already scrambling to cope with rapidly melting Pyrenees glacial ice, 90 percent of which has been lost over the past 100 years, The Guardian reported. Scientists have warned that the Pyrenees glacial ice could "disappear completely within a few decades." When that happens, the plains located south of the mountain range will be faced with a severely depleted water supply in the summertime.

Reference: Climate Change


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