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Hundreds of mummified corpses could be uncovered in Swiss Alps meltdown

Frozen bodies of couple who vanished 75 years ago among those uncovered recently as global warming forces ice to retreat

5 August 2017, 11:45am
The University of Zurich has a dedicated Swiss Mummy Project to study the finds uncovered as the glaciers melt
The University of Zurich has a dedicated Swiss Mummy Project to study the finds uncovered as the glaciers melt
Swiss police say hundreds of bodies of mountaineers who have gone missing in the Alps in the past century could emerge in coming years as global warming forces the country’s glaciers to retreat.

Alpine authorities have registered a significant increase in the number of human remains discovered last month, with the body of a man missing for 30 years the most recent to be uncovered.

Rescue teams in Saas Valley in the Valais canton were called last Tuesday after two climbers retreating from an aborted ascent spotted a hand and two shoes protruding from the Hohlaub glacier.

Rescuers spent two hours freeing the mummified body with icepicks and their bare hands, also recovering a silver wristwatch and a ring. A helicopter flew the remains to Bern, where forensics experts matched the DNA to that of a German citizen, born in 1943, who had gone missing on a hike in 11 August 1987.

One rescue worker said the man had worn shoes “unsuitable” for walking on ice, suggesting he may have slipped after walking a few metres onto the glacier and fallen down a crevice. Both feet had become detached from the body, indicating the force of the fall.

Police investigate the site where the body of a German hiker was found in the Valais canton near Saas-Fee, Switzerland
Police investigate the site where the body of a German hiker was found in the Valais canton near Saas-Fee, Switzerland
The discovery comes less than a week after the bodies of a Swiss couple, missing for 75 years, were found in the Tsanfleuron glacier in the same canton. Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin had disappeared after going out to milk their cows in a meadow above Chandolin on 15 August 1942.

On Thursday, the remains of a person believed to have been killed in an Air India crash more than 50 years ago was also discovered in the French Alps, on Mount Blanc.

Switzerland’s glaciers have been melting at an unprecedented rate, losing almost one cubic km in ice volume or about 900 bn litres of water over the past year. According to an investigation by Tagesanzeiger newspaper, eight of the 10 months in which the glaciers have lost the most in volume over the past century have been since 2008.

Since 1850, when glaciers covered 1,735 sq km (670 sq miles) of Swiss land, the total area has shrunk by a half, to about 890 sq km.

The majority of bodies are trapped in ice, crevices or streams after an accident or a suicide, though some cases are treated in relation to criminal cases.

Other bodies could be the victims of military skirmishes. Though Switzerland stayed neutral in world wars one and two, the Mont Blanc massif became a frontline towards the end of the second world war amid intense fighting between the German army and French resistance fighters.

In most cases, forensic experts face a race against time once bodies have been removed from the ice and start to thaw. Dental records and DNA samples are checked against a database of missing people to determine the identity of the corpse.

Since 2000, authorities in Switzerland have taken DNA samples of missing people’s family members immediately after their disappearance to facilitate the process.