After 350 years, and amid a changing climate, Alpine pilgrims warm up to ice.
About 50 people set out on foot from the Swiss village of Fiesch at dawn on July 31. As the sun rose over 13,000-foot (4,000-meter) Alpine peaks, the procession moved slowly up a mountainside and into the cool of a pine forest, stopping at a tiny church.
By 7:30 the group had swollen to around a hundred—too many to fit inside the chapel of Maria Heimsuchung, or Mary of the Visitation, so a makeshift altar was erected outside.
“Glacier is ice, ice is water, water is life,” intoned priest Toni Wenger, before beseeching God to stop the glaciers high above them from melting.
By changing a few, crucial words in the liturgy, Father Wenger reversed a Catholic ritual that for 350 years had implored the heavens to push back the glaciers.
The Vatican had approved the change as the effects of global warming became all too tangible in the Alps.
Climate change’s effects are accentuated in mountainous regions, and in the 20th century temperatures in Alpine Switzerland increased by twice the global average. Today Swiss glaciers are shrinking by nearly 33 feet (10 meters) a year, on average. What’s more, alpine communities are reporting more rain and stronger winds than in centuries past.
When Global Cooling Killed
The people of devoutly Catholic Fiesch and Fieschertal have made the annual pilgrimage since 1674, when Europe was in the grip of the Little Ice Age. (Related: “Little Ice Age Shrank Europeans, Sparked Wars.”)
Looming over the villages, the two largest glaciers in the Alps—the Aletsch (satellite picture) and Fiescher (satellite picture)—grew over the next two centuries, reaching their maximum lengths around 1850. Around that time, the Aletsch stretched some 16 miles (26 kilometers); the Fiescher was larger by similar proportions, though exact measurements aren’t available for the smaller glacier.
The consequences for the villagers were dire.
When pieces of the Aletsch fell into Lake Märjelen—which lies between the two glaciers—the lake overflowed. Three hundred and fifty-three million cubic feet (10 million cubic metres) of water rushed down the valley below, inundating settlements, damaging property, and killing villagers. Extremely poor until the late 19th century, the locals had few options but to rebuild.
Having endured hundreds such diasters, the villagers—with the help of local Jesuits—organized the pilgrimage, to be held annually on July 31: the Catholic feast day dedicated to the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
The glaciers began receding in the 1860s, and they continue to shrink today.