NOTHING IN CHRISTIAN Casarotto’s scientific training prepared him for the dead bodies. “The first time, I found a leg,” the glaciologist says. “There wasn’t any flesh left and the articulation had decomposed, but there was a bone with the shreds of trousers and a boot.”
On another occasion, while surveying a glacier near the Austrian-Italian border, he and his colleagues from MUSE, the state science museum in the Italian city of Trento, came across a complete torso with the head still attached. There were scraps of grey-green clothing clinging to the body, and a rusted helmet half-covered the young man’s skull.
A century ago, the region now known as Trentino-Alto Adige was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the First World War, an estimated 150,000 men lost their lives in these mountains, as the Italians battled imperial forces for control of the high ground. Freezing temperatures, formidable terrain and the risk of further exposure to enemy fire meant that many soldiers were simply left where they fell, or given ersatz burials in crevasses.
As the climate crisis worsens, however, the glaciers which once formed the front line are melting. The natural tombs which encased these soldiers for over a hundred years are being desecrated, as global heating disinters their occupants – their remains often eerily preserved by the ice.
Casarotto has spent two decades monitoring the health of Trentino’s glaciers. As the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has grown and average temperatures have continued to rise, he’s watched as these ancient rivers of ice shrink and disappear at previously unprecedented rates. Normally, he and his colleagues talk in terms of “deep time”. Ice ages. Epochs. Geological eras. But man-made climate change is disrupting systems that have endured for millennia, causing natural timeframes to concertina and collapse. These days, Casarotto frequently finds himself confronted by grisly relics of a more recent past. “I find at least one dead body a year,” he says, “or a bit of a body – a hand or a leg or something.”