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Why Melting Glaciers Revealing Missing People Is The Least Of Our Worries

Climate change is causing glaciers around the world to disappear before our eyes. As this is happening, we are discovering answers to mysteries that were buried deep under the frozen masses. In some cases, that means unearthing eerily well-preserved bodies that have been frozen in the ice.

One example of this occurring is in the case of Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, a Swiss couple who disappeared 75 years ago. This month, the Tsanfleuron Glacier receded enough so that their frozen bodies were found. In 1942 the couple, a shoemaker and a school teacher, left the house to feed their cattle in a meadow above Chandolin in the Valais Canton but never came back.

Their children, 7 in total, had to be given away to different families and so the siblings grew up separated. Today, only two of them remain alive. Their parents’ bodies were found near a ski lift at an Alps resort by a worker who also found several objects strewn around the two bodies including a water bottle, clothing, a pocket watch, a book, and boots.

The couple’s youngest daughter, Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, spoke at her parents’ funeral on July 22. Of her mother, Udry-Dumoulin said, “She was always pregnant and couldn’t climb in the difficult conditions of a glacier.” 

She said to the funeral guests, “We spent our whole lives searching for them, without stopping. We never thought we’d be able to give them the funeral they deserved”

The Tsanfleuron Glacier has been melting at a rate of 3-4 feet every year and glaciers all over the world are rapidly losing ice.

The U.S. Geological Survey released data in 2017 that establishes that the glaciers in Glacier National Park have shrunk by 40 percent since 1966 and are expected to melt entirely in our lifetimes. NASA estimates that by 2050, the Arctic will be ice-free.

Rahaf Khalil

The glaciers melting at such a rapid pace means that we must expect more bodies and other discoveries to emerge in the coming years, according to Bettina Schrag who is the Cantonal head of forensic medicine.

Several other bodies of mountain climbers and explorers have been found in the disappearing glaciers, such as that of well-known Mount Everest climbers George Mallory and Jonathan Conville.

Furthermore, the remains of two Japanese climbers that have been missing since the 1970s were also discovered. 

The total number of people who have been reported missing in the Alps or nearby regions is 280 and it appears that the melting ice is revealing their whereabouts.

It’s not only people that the glaciers are uncovering. Prehistoric animals, sites of plane crashes, and Roman coins among other hidden and valuable objects have also been discovered.

Of course, all of this is rather exciting and may seem akin to uncovering hidden treasure but there are pretty disastrous consequences to these discoveries. 

Scientists have learned that viruses and bacteria that have been frozen for millions of years can come back to life. After the soil and bodies thaw and the ice melts, the viruses and/or bacteria they are infected by can bring back diseases that were believed to be eradicated.

For example, in 2012, a previously frozen reindeer that was uncovered due to melting glaciers infected people in the Arctic Circle with the Anthrax bacteria, killing a 12-year-old-boy and infecting at least 20 others. 

This was the result of the thawed-out reindeer corpse releasing infectious Anthrax bacteria into the nearby water and soil which found its way into the food supply. In addition, more than 2,000 reindeer grazing in the nearby area were infected.  

Evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France explains, “Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark…”

He continues, “Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”

Now we are faced with yet another disastrous consequence of climate change; that we must contend with the ghosts of our own history. This is an almost literal example of the saying “just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”.

The Natural History Museum


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