ICE Case Studies
The Changing Swiss-Italian Alpine Border
Until recently, Switzerland, Italy, and France defined parts of their borders descriptively with reference to rivers, snow, and the high points of Alpine glaciers. These glaciers, however, have been melting, and the rivers have been changing course, possibly due in part to climate change. The changes observed are several meters for rivers and 100-150 meters for the Zermatt glacier near the Matterhorn. To reflect this changing topography, the governments--Switzerland and Italy, and Switzerland and France--entered into bilateral agreements to redefine affected portions of their borders. In 2005 to 2006, a joint effort between Switzerland and Italy redefined the border based on photogrammetry. In 2009 the Italian government adopted legislation recognizing the border as movable and subject to change. Switzerland adopted the change without legislation.
In 1941 Switzerland and Italy demarcated their border through the Alps as the ridge crest of the glaciers. They described this using words and with a 1:25,000 scale map to a precision of 20-50 meters. Although World War II was underway, the timing of the two events is a mere coincidence. European entities measure the melting of glaciers there annually. After observing significant melting of the Alpine glaciers changing the border up to 100-150 meters, the two governments met to re-negotiate the affected portions of their shared borders., Approximately 40 kilometers, spread throughout the 578-kilometer border between the two countries, pass through glaciers; the remainder passes through solid terrain., The new definition clarifies that when ice and snow on a border have disappeared, the border is the line of the partition of the water on the land or rocks. The Alpine borders pass through uninhabited areas.
In 2005 to 2006, a joint effort between Switzerland and Italy redefined the border using photogrammetry to assess the partition of the water. The countries agreed to redefine the border only when necessary for a specific reason, and it is not known when that will next occur.  A bilateral national border commission meets every two or three years to discuss such questions. A group of experts from the Swiss Office of Topography and Italian Military Geographic Institute are responsible for technical aspects of redefining the border., 
In May 2008 the Swiss and Italian governments reached an agreement in Rome to redefine the affected portions of the border as movable based on the changing glaciers. In May 2009 the Italian Parliament adopted legislation ratifying this agreement. Switzerland adopted the change without legislation.
Similarly, portions of the border between Switzerland and France pass through glaciers or snow fields or are defined by rivers. For example, the 103-kilometer border between Geneva and France includes 50 kilometers that pass through the middle of rivers. After observing shifts of several meters in the rivers due to flooding, the two governments, just as Switzerland and Italy did, agreed to re-negotiate their borders to change as the natural features do., Although these borders include private property, national borders and private property are separate matters, and there is no compensation for property owners due to the redefined borders.
Unlike its neighbors, Switzerland is not a part of the European Union. It is unclear whether there is any need for a similar EU-wide effort. There are no borders between Austria and Switzerland or Germany and Switzerland defined by glaciers.
Begin Year: 2004
End Year: 2009
Duration: 5 years
The events relevant to the resolution of conflict occurred in Europe, involving Switzerland, Italy, and France. As illustrated by the map below, the Italian legislation giving Italian legal force to the 2008 agreement with Switzerland applies to the entire 578 km Swiss-Italian border, which stretches from Mont Dolent, Courmayeur Aosta, in the west, near the border with France, to Piz Lad, Tschlin, in the east, near the border with Austria. Only approximately 40 km of the border, however, crosses snow fields or glaciers that are subject to alteration. In addition, approximately 50 km of the 103-km boundary between France and the Canton of Geneva pass through rivers and have changed by up to a few meters. Some of these include private property.
Below: the stretch of border near the Matterhorn, Zermatt, high in the Alps, is an area where the border is particularly affected by shifting glaciers.,
Below is an illustration of the changing border at the Furggsattel in Zermatt. The crosses depict the boundary in 1940, and a red line indicates the new boundary. The decrease in the height of the glacier from 1940 to 2000 caused a shift in the boundary of about 100 to 150 m.
The aerial photograph below shows the boundary at the Furggsattel in Zermatt.
Switzerland, Italy, and France are all sovereign actors.
The affected habitats are temperate and cool.
The events relevant to the resolution of conflict occurred in Europe, involving Switzerland, Italy, and France. As illustrated by the map above, the 2009 Italian legislation giving legal force in Italy to the 2008 agreement with Switzerland applies to the entire 578 km Swiss-Italian border,., which stretches from Mont Dolent, Courmayeur Aosta, in the west, near the border with France, to Piz Lad, Tschlin, in the east, near the border with Austria., Only approximately 40 km of the border, however, crosses snow fields or glaciers that are subject to alteration. In addition, approximately 50 km of the 103-km boundary between France and the Canton of Geneva pass through rivers and have changed by up to a few meters. Some of these borders pass through private property.
The governments averted international conflict by reaching agreements redefining their borders.
Low: zero deaths overall and zero deaths per year
As illustrated in the diagram below, climate change is contributing to the melting of Alpine glaciers. Because Switzerland and Italy defined their border in relation to these glaciers, as the glaciers melt the demarcation of the border becomes unclear, contributing to legal uncertainty and conflict between the two nations. To resolve the problem, the two countries agreed that the border, defined by the ridge of the glaciers, would follow natural and gradual changes in the glaciers due to changes in temperature and climate. If the glaciers dissolve entirely the border will be the ridge line of the rocky terrain. The nations will determine the border based on aerial surveys at intervals set by the Commission for the Maintenance of the Border based on technical considerations. Sudden and superficial changes, however, will not affect the border, although in that case the nations might agree to exchange equivalent surfaces. With this innovative legal solution, the countries will not need to renegotiate their border as the glaciers change but instead can let technical experts update the border.
Actors are heavily and actively involved in the case on a bilateral level.
The outcome of the conflict was compromise. Although this may provide a model for peacefully resolving similar border shifts when there are low stakes for the governments involved and they have a generally smooth relationship,
ICEMAN: This case study concerns a dispute between Austria and Italy over ownership of the body of a Neolithic man found on their border, evidence and theories about his identity as a trader, and what we can learn from the body about ancient trading customs.
SIACHEN: The Siachen case study examines the conflict between India and Pakistan over the northern Kashmir border which includes the Siachen glacier. Glacial melt has contributed not only to fluctuating river flow and water scarcity but also to shifting of already ambiguous borders, in addition to providing new access to oil and minerals.
AYMARA: This case study explores efforts for indigenous Aymara people and citizens of La Paz, Bolivia to secure compensation for lost water rights due to the shrinking of a glacier.
 Personal Communication from Othmar Bühler, Chef Sektion Landesgrenzen und Nachbarrecht of the Swiss Federal Government's Department of Foreign Affairs to Christina Studt, April 1, 2011.
 Swiss Office of Topography site about moving boundaries
 Google translation of Italian legislation No. 72 (best in Internet Explorer), original Italian available from the Italian Parliament
 See Climate Changes Europe's Borders – and the World's, Michael Marshall, New Scientist, March 27, 2009
 Melting Snow Prompts Border Change Between Switzerland and Italy, Peter Popham, The Independent, March 24, 2009
 Article about the legislation as translated by Google, original Italian available here.Climate Change Could Redraw National Borders, Eoin O'Carroll, Christian Science Monitor: Bright Green Blog, July 14, 2009