Innsbruck - border movements and inspirational quotes

November 26, 2017

Wed 22nd - 21kms


On Wednesday I ran 21kms in Innsbruck, a quaint little town on the Austrian-Italian border, known for is university vibe and winter sporting activities. Luckily I had already experienced Innsbruck’s picturesque setting and limitless beer collection on a previous visit, as my 19-hour stopover left no time to “soak up the atmosphere at a local bar for the afternoon before heading to one of the very popular Tyrolean Folk Shows,” as suggested by Tripadvisor.

I was running off very little sleep (literally) and was still annoyed at the UK security officials who had held me up on my way out of London. They were certain my portable massage stick was some kind of multi-coloured bludgeoning device and I was going to knead someone to death, an enticing proposition following 20 minutes of their questioning. This hold-up left me with less than ample time to rearrange my possessions in order to make it appear to airline staff that I only had the obligatory one piece of cabin baggage (as opposed to one oversized cabin bag, a prohibited second item, a number of jackets that didn’t fit in to either and a possible weapon).


I was therefore very grateful to be met in Innsbruck by my friend Erin who hired a bike and followed me around the route. Erin proved to be great company, inundating me with inspirational lines from “Remember the Titans”. The quotes were slightly irrelevant, but appreciated nonetheless.


The majority of the ski fields in the area were yet to open, however the town was still buzzing. One man I spoke with said that they were all waiting for the fields to open in December. “Everyone who lives here skis – we live for the winter” he said. However, the ski season could be dramatically shortened in the next century as a result of global warming. Recent studies have concluded that the Alps could lose as much as 70 percent of snow cover by 2099 as temperatures rise due to greenhouse gas emissions. The ski season may also start a month later, finish up to three months earlier and the snowline may be up to 1,000m higher. Many resorts have lower base villages than this, so the costs to adapt and relocate will undoubtedly be large, not to mention the possibility of overcrowded ski fields and further travel for tourists. It will also throw a real spanner in the works for the Brits if the snow season no longer coincides with school holidays.


However, the reason I chose Innsbruck for this run was not to discuss ski seasons. The particular effect relates to movement and melting of the glaciers that define part of the border between Italy and Austria, a border that traverses rock, ice, and seasonal snow. I crossed this border, that is mostly demarcated by the path of the Alpine watershed line, when I took the train from Innsbruck to Bologna, following my run. It is not uncommon for glaciers and ice-sheets that define borders between countries to move on occasion, both retreating and expanding in any given year. However, since 1850, these Alpine glaciers have shrunk by around 50% and the rate of shrinkage has increased dramatically in recent decades.  As this snow melts and the glaciers retreat, the watershed that defines the border has shifted considerably. Scientists have said that it’s likely that the geo-defined frontier will eventually disappear. This detail had never occurred to me before – the fact that some countries’ boundaries are in a constant state of flux and their size depends on the extent of glacier shift in any given year.

 This effect could also lead to arguments between nations over territory or the right to certain resources in the future. An example of contention due to shifting borders is illustrated in this Vice article. Essentially, two hikers found a body in the snow during an expedition along the Mt Similaun ice sheet, the ice-sheet that I had come very close to when crossing the border. It turned out that the body belonged to a 5,000-year-old man and was one of the most well-preserved mummies in history; a valuable relic, if only for research purposes and naming rights. Italy claimed that the body had been found on the Italian side of the border while Austria thought it was in fact Austrian territory.  The border had originally been drawn to follow the glaciers of Mt. Similaun; however, due to the potential for this ice sheet to shift more than 30 feet per year, it was almost impossible to determine who owned the mummy. This prompted a re-surveying of the border and it was eventually decided that the body had been located 300 feet into Italy.


The border between Italy and Switzerland is also moving. In 2009, melting glaciers in the Alps prompted part of this border, near the Matterhorn, to be redrawn. It was not only glaciers that were affected and had changed position due to global warming, but other points of reference used in defining the border (i.e watercourses).


Looking out the window of the train on the way to Bologna, I reflected on how the impacts of climate change extend beyond human or economic effects – it’s also going to be a logistical nightmare for the maps industry.










"I don't scratch my head unless it itches and I don't dance unless I hear some music. I will not be intimidated. That's just the way it is." - Erin quoting Coach Herman Boone from Remember the Titans. 



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