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Cursed Glaciers


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Once, during the long and cold winter nights in the Alps, people gathered around the fireplace to tell each other ancient tales or myths.

Some of these myths explain the origin or deal with the curse of glaciers. Various glaciers are said to be the results of an ancient curse: the Langgletscher in Swiss, the Marmolada in the Dolomites, the Übergossene Alm and the Pasterze in Salzburg, the Vernagt- and Guslarferner in Tirol to mention some.

Fig.1. The Vernagtferner in 2007 (Click on the image to enlarge). Old myths tell that the glacier covers the ruins of the ancient cities of Onanä and Dananä, cursed long time ago to punish the hubris of the inhabitants.

The details differ but the general structure of the myth is very similar:  A long time ago there existed a rich city surrounded by fertile pastures where today is the glacier. Unfortunately the wealth corrupted the inhabitants and they wasted the fortune, one day they decided to use milk and bread to clean the streets of the city. When a beggar asked for a piece of bread the presumptuous inhabitants denied him this humble request. So he cursed the city, dark clouds covered the sky and heavy and persistent snow started falling in the mountains. When the sun reappeared, the city and pastures were gone, lost forever under the glacier.
Some historians suggest that this myth is based on observations of advancing glaciers during the period of the “Little Ice Age“, a period of cooling extending in the Alps from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

There is no doubt that locals noted the variations in mass and length of glaciers, especially when the advancing glaciers extended into the valleys and threatened people or their property. In 1781 the Swiss pastor Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach noted in a report intended to investigate the dangers of glaciers:

Could it be proven to ourselves on the available documentation that both by the progress of our ice mountains as by our misbehaviour once for pasture most suitable land is currently covered by ice…[]

One of the most cursed glaciers in the European Alps was the Vernagtferner. This glacier is famous for its repeated advances during the Little Ice Age. The glacier was not threatening to bury alive the people (even if there exists a myth of a buried city under the glacier), but the advancing glacier obstructed repeatedly the valley of Rofen forming a dam made of ice. The meltwater of other glaciers then formed a glacial lake named “Rofensee“.

Fig.2. The historic “Atlas Tyrolensis” published in 1774 by cartographer Peter Anich shows the situation between 1600 and 1771, when the glacier of Vernagt blocked the valley of Rofen. The ice dam and the meltwater of other glaciers formed Lake Rofen (image in public domain).

Ice dams can be very unstable and the repeated dam failure at Lake Rofen resulted in catastrophic floods, one of the earliest documented happened in the year 1600.
The local Abraham Jäger was send a year later into the valley to report to the authorities the source of all this devastation.

Such glacier is not as the others covered by smooth ice, but with many peaks, pools of water and fissures with strange colours, as one can not wonder enough of [this spectacle].

For the society at the time the only explanation for the advancing glacier was the wrongdoings of witches and sorcerers. In 1678, again after a catastrophic outburst, the local Thoman Jöchl was imprisoned, incriminated for bewitching the weather and executed August 8, 1680.
Between 1771 and 1772 again a lake started to form and the authorities summarized in a report the possible actions to prevent a disaster:

The only counter measurements are the construction of a canal along the side of the valley, but also praying…[]

It didn’t help much; chronicles reported further catastrophic floods in 1845 and 1848.

Fig.3. & 4. The advancing and retreating Vernagtferner as depicted in 1911 by artist Rudolf Reschreiter (sitting in the foreground of the drawing). Prof. S. Finsterwalder, famous geographer that compiled the first modern map of this glacier at the end of the 19th century, is surprised by the advancing Vernagtferner, however the glacier doesn’t seem to appreciate the taste of the professor (image in public domain).

Another glacier became feared for very similar reasons. Like the Vernagtferner also the Gurgler Ferner repeatedly blocked a valley and meltwater formed the glacial Lake Langthaler (or Gurgler) that experienced outbursts in 1717-1724, 1770-1774, 1845 and 1848. Here a simple but effective warning system was installed: if an outburst of the growing lake seemed inevitable, messengers were send to the people with the warning “The glacier is coming!

Fig.5. In this map published in 1861 by cartographer K.A. Sonklar the Lake Langthaler is depicted.  The advancing Gurgler Ferner in the principal valley forms an ice dam (image in public domain).

Fig.6. & 7. View into the Langthaler-Valley (Click on the image to enlarge), in ~1850 the principal valley in the foreground was covered by the Gurgler Ferner. At the confluence of the two valleys the glacial lake Langthaler formed. Still today the lacustrine sediments and the shorelines of the lake can be recognized in the field.

The catastrophic floods and the glaciers became so popular that in 1605 the cartographer Warmund Ygl put them on his map as “Glacies continua et perpetua” (eternal and continuous ice), the first cartographic depiction of cursed glaciers.

Bibliography:

HAID, H. (2004): Mythos Gletscher. Pro Vita Alpina – Loewenzahn, Innsbruck/Bozen: 112
HAMBREY, M. & ALEAN, J. (2004): Glaciers. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press: 377
KRAINER, K. & SPIELER, A. (1999): The sedimentary record of ice-damned lakes in the Ötztal Alps (Austria). Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde und Glazialgeologie Bd.35 (1): 65-86

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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