The year was 1915, World War I had just started a year earlier. While the rest of Europe was engaged in a brutal trench warfare, Austro-Hungarian soldiers were fighting their very own war within a war with Italian troops.
The soldiers were held down in a stalemate atop the freezing mountains of Mount Scorluzzo along the Italian-Swiss border. It came to be known as the White War.
Unlike the trenches down below on the Western Front, the terrains of the mountain were far more treacherous. More had died from avalanches, hypothermia or falling off the mountains than from actual fighting.
The soldiers blasted off parts of the mountain to form artificial caves that served as barracks. It was to be their home for the three bitter years until the end of World War I in November 1918.
Since then, though the caves were abandoned, meant to be forgotten and in time they became encapsulated in snow. It seems however that climate change had the last laugh.
The melting of the glaciers and permafrost have revealed this remarkably well-preserved time capsule. But for the researchers and historians now hard at work trying to uncover the site; it is a bittersweet discovery.
It is not just the melting glaciers that pose problems, it is the entire ramifications of climate change itself.
Otzi and glacial archeology
The barracks on Mount Scorluzzo is not the first archaeological discovery facilitated by climate change. It has become a whole phenomenon on its own.
Back in 1991, around the time the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was being drafted, German tourists made a startling discovery. A body stuck in the ice of the Otztal Alps on the Italian side of the Italian-Austrian border.
Initially, the body was thought to be that of a modern-day mountaineer but after some tests were run by archaeologists, it was discovered to be the body of a middle-aged man thought to have died almost 5,300 years ago.
He was named Otzi the Iceman and further tests revealed that he had been murdered, making him [Otzi] probably the oldest cold case on record.
Soon after this incredible find, reports began emerging of other discoveries made in the melting snow of Yukon, the Swiss Alps, Canada and Norway amongst several others. There have been thousands of finds with some dating back 6,000 to even 10,000 years.
Some of these findings have exciting scientific potential too.
In Siberia, between 2018 to 2020 alone, scientists made exciting discoveries. There was firstly the discovery of a foal belonging to a long lost species called "Lena horse." Not only was the foal in great condition it also had its bladder full of urine and blood in its veins intact.
Soon afterwards there was another discovery of an 18,000 year old wolf. But this species was unlike anything seen before. Scientists theorised that the puppy, "Dogor" as it was named, was possibly an evolutionary link between wolves and dogs as we know them today.
In late 2020, on the back of this string of exciting discoveries, scientists found a 10,000 year old woolly mammoth at the bottom of a Siberian lake. The remains were in such good condition that there were even tendons, skin and excrement present. The naming of the mammoth is still not confirmed but Tadibe is likely to be the pick.
These discoveries were not only crucial to understanding the history but the discovery of intact blood and tissues opens up for more possibilities in the field of research and science.
A silver lining or a race to the end?
From Otzi till now, a pattern has emerged. The cause and culprit are laid bare for the world to see: climate change. What should have been a wake-up call back then was instead left on snooze and now it is worse than ever.
Ironically like an avalanche, the effects are starting to build up, about to barrel out of control.
While climate change has oddly enough made strides in the field of glacial archaeology, it is also slowly destroying it. Simply put, archaeologists cannot cope with the rate these sites are being uncovered. More and more historic sites and artefacts are
being uncovered by the melting ice but once exposed to the air and its elements, the objects deteriorate rapidly before being destroyed altogether.
In particular danger are soft organic materials like leather, textiles, even the surface. Most of these, once exposed to the elements only have until a year till expiry
It is like a race against time for glacial archaeologists. A race to not only find the sites before they are destroyed but also to properly preserve previous and new artefacts and sites. Glacial archaeologists work on a different, far more rigid timeframe too.
They do fieldwork from mid-August till mid-September as this is the time with the least snow. Any other time is either too hazardous or time consuming.
Researchers have likened it to a mass extinction. So then like Noah, they are scuttling around, trying to save not just these artefacts and mummified bodies; but our own history and heritage. But the answer to 'how much can they save?' is always 'not enough.'
Jørgen Hollesen, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark was part of a study published in the Antiquity journal named "Climate change and the deterioration of the archaeological and environmental archives in the Arctic". Their study estimated that there were around 180,000 registered archaeological sites in the Arctic. These date from the Stone Age till recent years.
When speaking to Grist, a non-profit organization, he said, "Very few of the Arctic sites have been visited in recent times and therefore we know little about their current state of preservation. Currently we are working in the Nuuk region of Greenland.
Here our newest results show that we could lose up to 70 percent of the organic content within this century."
This is just in the Arctic alone. Like a mass extinction, the effects of these melting glaciers mean rising sea levels. This in turn means archaeological sites on the ground are being similarly affected.
But unlike the slow death on snow, at sea level, it means absolute destruction. Fossils and sites of interest have already been washed away on the coasts of northern Alaska.
For the barracks on Scorluzzo, it means what was once "home" for so many in the midst of war could soon be destroyed, not just from the air but from the melting snow on the Alps itself.
If we let this continue, it could even be that the Alps themselves vanish. Then maybe one day we will be Otzi to someone else.