A relief model created by Italian Limes of Mount Similaun, showing the line of the border at time of construction Delfino Sisto Legnani/Italian Limes

An Italian project maps how climate change is now shifting the nation’s boundaries.

Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.

European borders have proved over history to be wiggly things, and few have wiggled more that Italy’s.

Only fully unified as a state in 1870, the new country saw its border with Austria redrawn many times during the First World War. Italy lost pockets of territory to France in the 1940s and only assumed its current form in 1954, when the border with then-Yugoslavia became fixed. Over their history, Italians have become familiar with negotiating the complexities of frontier geography. Recently, however, they’ve been faced with an entirely new quandary, one that many countries with mountainous or riverine territory may well soon face: Their border is melting.

Italy’s northern land border passes through high alpine landscapes, a land of rock, ice, and seasonal snow. This frontier inhabits a portion of Europe that has been altered by climate change perhaps more than any other. Since 1850, its glaciers have shrunk by 50 percent, and the pace of shrinkage tripled between 1970 and 2000. As ice disappears, the watershed that marks the divide between Italy and Austria has shifted, in some areas by as much as 100 meters. When glaciers melt, their shape and altitude alters too, allowing previously buried rocks to emerge and reshape ridge lines. This leaves both states with a fascinating and unusual problem: how do you fix a border based on a natural barrier that is in constant flux?

The solution that Italy has come up with is, well, Italian: You can’t. Instead, the Italian government has approved the idea of a movable border, on its icier frontiers at least. Following agreements with Austria in 2008 and Switzerland in 2009, Italy has agreed that its glacial borders can shift depending on the location of the watershed and how it is affected by ice melt. In one year, the nation’s territory might expand; in another it might contract slightly.

This rule doesn’t hold all the way along the alpine border—France and Italy are still in dispute as to the exact frontier around Mont Blanc, while no glaciers lie in the high country between Italy and Slovenia. The concept still poses a challenge to the traditional idea of a fixed border, and has given rise to one of the most poetic, thought-provoking border mapping projects of recent years.

This project is called Italian Limes (that’s Latin for “frontier”), and it looks at how ecological shifts are reshaping Italian territory. First launched in 2014, Italian Limes set up a new monitoring mission in April 2016 on the slopes around Mount Similaun, a 3,603 meter (11,821 foot) peak straddling the Italian-Austrian border. In order to gauge the shifts in altitude on Mount Similaun’s glacier, Italian Limes installed a grid of 25 solar-powered sensors laid across its watershed in terrain so difficult that only a helicopter could provide access. These sensors send information every two hours, recording altitude changes that alter the line of the watershed and thus the course of the border. To render the shifts visible, these sensors’ data is often sent to a roving art installation that has been exhibited, among other places, at the Arsenale in Venice.

Solar sensors arriving by helicopter on Mount Similaun. Delfino Sisto Legnani/Italian Limes

At the heart of this exhibit is a drawing machine permanently poised over a map of Similaun. When visitors activate it, the machine uses the latest sensor data to draw the current real time location of the frontier, providing a visual record of the frontier’s constant flow. Here’s a detailed (and beautiful) account of how the project works.

What, you may ask, is the point of this? Certainly, it isn’t intended to settle contentious border disputes, given that the terrain around Mount Similaun is unpopulated, extremely inaccessible, and has no great geopolitical significance. Instead, the project acts as a gauge of the alarmingly rapid effects of climate change. It also serves as a reminder that the natural world sometimes has a way of laughing at the political boundaries into which we try to shoehorn it. As Marco Ferrari, the head of Italian Limes’ mapping expedition has put it.  

"Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature basically doesn't give a s***."

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