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The Italy-Switzerland border is melting

How a ski lodge became trapped in a border dispute.

Christophe Haubursin is a senior producer for the Vox video team. Since joining the team in 2016, he has produced for Vox’s YouTube channel and Emmy-nominated shows Glad You Asked and Explained.

Italy’s land border cuts through the highest altitudes of the Alps, crossing snowfields, mountain peaks, and massive glaciers. For centuries, the watershed line (which marks the divide where water flows either north or south down the mountains) served as a natural boundary between Italy and its European neighbors. But beginning in the 1980s, geographic surveyors noticed something: The glaciers whose peaks had long marked the watershed line were retreating … and moving Italy’s border along with them.

The only inhabited place nearby — an Italian ski lodge called the Rifugio Guide del Cervino — was caught right in the middle. Since then, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria have piloted a new kind of “mobile border” agreement, where boundary lines move with the changing landscape. Their solution might prove crucial as climate change reshapes water-based borders around the world.

Further reading:

  • Read more about Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual, and Andrea Bagnato’s book, A Moving Border, here.
  • Before the book, Marco Ferrari debuted an interactive installation at the Venice Biennale called “Italian Limes” — limes is Latin for boundary — with a GPS-powered drawing machine that traced the shifting border in real time.
  • The historical maps we projected are from swisstopo, Switzerland’s national mapping agency. They have a great interactive map tool you can use yourself.
  • And read more from swisstopo about the border changes.
  • This New Yorker piece by Zoey Poll is a beautiful deep dive into the story of the Rifugio.
  • And so is this Wall Street Journal story by Eric Sylvers.
  • Lastly, hear from the owner of the Rifugio himself — and how the border line uncertainty is affecting his restaurant renovation plans.

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