Future

In Switzerland, Melting Glaciers Reveal Buried Treasures

Retreating glaciers are liberating bodies and objects lost thousands of years ago and revealing much about the people who once lived in these mountains.

Glaciers receding in the Bernese Alps
Glaciers receding in the Bernese Alps
Xavier Lambiel

BRIG â€" A skull, a sword, a few bones, a pistol and a small handful of coins. It's all that remains of a man who died around the year 1600 in the region of Zermatt.

After being loaned to an Italian museum, the remains of the so-called "mercenary" are now on exhibit in the town of Swiss town of Brig. Culture Minister Esther Waeber Kalbermatten says they represent "a heritage of international importance," and she encourages mountaineers and hikers to announce their discoveries as soon as they find them as the glaciers continue to shrink.

Ice preserved this man, who never made it past the Theodul Pass, once an important connecting point between Switzerland and Italy. Aged between 20 and 30 and from the Alps, he was traveling with 184 coins and many weapons, including a wheellock pistol, a sword and a left-handed dagger. So far, these objects appear to tell the story of a mercenary returning home with his pay. But the Valais History Museum has published a book that compiles the most recent research on the topic, which actually contradicts this theory.

The mercenary was a rich traveler

Archeologist Sophie Providoli, who directed the book's publication, believes the man wasn't a soldier, but rather a "rich traveler." He wore silk braids and his beard was trimmed. According to Matthias Senn, the former curator of the Swiss National Museum and a weapons specialist, the pistol and the dagger were more "stylish accessories" than weapons of war. Dispersed by the melting glacier, the bones and objects were found progressively by a Zermatt geologist between 1984 and 1990.

The "Theodul mercenary" and his belongings are the oldest glacial remains in Europe after the famous "Ötzi," a male body that dates back more than 5,000 years. Warm winds released Ötzi from the Hauslabjoch glacier in 1991. The body was found by hikers at more than 3,200 meters in altitude, at the border between Austria and Italy. Armed with a bow and an ax, the man was in all likelihood killed by an arrow in the back during the Chalcolithic period, then became mummified in ice. The discovery marked the beginning of glacial archeology.

An auspicious period

Since 1850, temperatures have been rising faster in the Alps, and glaciers have been retreating. When they do, they expose forgotten, long frequented paths that ice gradually obstructed. "We're living an auspicious period of archeology," says Philippe Curdy, curator of the Prehistory and Great Age Department of the Sion History Museum.

At the Schnidejoch Pass, which made it possible to travel through Bern and the Valais canton, the 2003 heat wave melted an ice field. By chance, hikers found a bow and arrows that were more than 7,000 years old, 1,500 years older than Ötzi. Some 900 objects were then unearthed on the site, dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze or Iron ages, from the Roman era of the Middle Ages.

Digital archeology

Between 2011 and 2014, a Swiss National Science Foundation research project called "Frozen Passes and Historical Remains" made it possible to systematically explore 13 sites, all located between 3,000 and 3,500 meters in altitude. Geographers identified and modeled the most likely historical crossing points, which were then cross-checked by historians based on available archives. Now archeologists explore these sites at the beginning of every autumn, when the snow melts. At the Theodul Pass, they discovered tools that date from the Middle Ages and polished wood that goes back to the Roman era.

Ice makes it possible to preserve organic matter, but its melting leads to a rapid deterioration of the remains. Fabrics disintegrate from heat and humidity, and foraging animals disperse the bones. "It's information that's disappearing," says Curdy, who is eager to intensify his investigation.

Geographer Ralph Lugon predicts that ice will have completely disappeared from some of the identified sites by 2080. "The time during which glaciers spit out their treasures will be short and unique," he says.

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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