A melting glacier in the Alps has shifted the border between Switzerland and Italy, putting the location of an Italian mountain hut in question.
The boundary line runs along a drainage divide—the point where meltwater flows toward one country or another on either side of the mountain.
But Theodul Glacier’s retreat means the watershed has crawled away toward the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 3,480-meter (11,417-foot) Testa Grigia peak, and is gradually sweeping under the building.
On a recent visit to the refuge’s restaurant, Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, asked, “So – are we in Switzerland?”
It was a question worth asking. The answer was the subject of diplomatic negotiations that began in 2018 and ended in a compromise last year, but the details remain classified.
When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely on Italian territory. But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically in southern Switzerland.
The issue has come to the fore because the tourism dependent area is at the top of one of the largest ski resorts in the world and a major new development including a cable car station is under construction just meters away.
An agreement was negotiated in Florence in November 2021, but the outcome will not be announced until it has been approved by the Swiss government, which will not happen until 2023.
“We have agreed to split the difference,” said Alain Wicht, chief border officer at the Swiss mapping agency Swisstopo.
His responsibilities include maintaining the 7,000 border markers along the 1,935 km (1,200 miles) of landlocked Switzerland’s border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.
Wicht took part in the negotiations, where both parties made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side emerged victorious, at least no one lost,” he said.
Where the Italian-Swiss border crosses Alpine glaciers, the border follows the watershed. But the Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010. This exposed the underlying rock to the ice, altering the watershed and forcing the two neighbors to redraw a 100-metre section of their boundary.
Wicht said such adjustments are common and are generally regulated by comparing readings from surveyors from the border countries, without involving politicians.
“We are fighting over areas that are not worth much,” he said. But he added that this is “the only place we suddenly had a building involved,” adding “economic value” to the land.
His Italian counterparts declined to comment “due to the complex international situation”.
Jean-Philippe Amstein, a former Swisstopo boss, said such disputes are usually resolved by exchanging plots of land of equal area and value. In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in getting a piece of glacier,” he said, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss area.”
While the result remains secret, the sanctuary’s caretaker, 51-year-old Lucio Trucco, has been told it will remain on Italian soil. “The retreat remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” he said. “The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian and the taxes are Italian.”
Years of negotiations have delayed the sanctuary’s renovation – villages on either side of the border have been unable to grant planning permission. The work will therefore not be completed in time for the planned opening of a new cable car on the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn at the end of 2023. The slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt.
While some mid-altitude ski resorts are preparing for the end of alpine skiing due to global warming, skiing on the slopes of Zermatt-Cervinia is possible all summer long, even if such activities contribute to glacier retreat.
“That’s why we have to upgrade the area here, because it will surely be the last one to die,” said Trucco.
On the Swisstopo maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border initially remains a dashed line when it passes the refuge.