August 6, 2009

Swiss Villagers Pray For Glacial Growth

For centuries, inhabitants of Switzerland's largely Roman Catholic south have made a sacred vow with God, praying for protection against the advancing ice of the Great Aletsch glacier.

But the citizens of these isolated mountain hamlets are now seeking permission from the pope to reverse their prayers amid fears of global warming.

The vow, established in 1678, was simple: villagers of Fiesch and Fieschertal promised to lead virtuous lives in exchange for God's protection of their homes and livelihoods against the threat of being engulfed by Europe's largest glacier as it advanced toward the valley with large winter snowfalls.

But things have changed in recent decades, with the Aletsch now melting amid temperatures 1.3 Fahrenheit (0.7 degrees Celsius) warmer than 19th century levels.

The pastor at the Ernerwald Chapel has cautioned his flock that a new threat now exists.

"We all know "” and the Holy Father reminded us in his Easter message "” that an unprecedented change in the climate is taking place," said Rev. Pascal Venetz in his sermon to about 100 people.

"Glacier is ice, ice is water and water is life," Venetz said to the villagers from the Valais region, which has sent its young men to protect the Vatican as Swiss Guards since the 16th century.

"Without the glacier the springs run dry and the brooks evaporate. Men and women face great danger. Alps and pastures vanish and towns die out," Venetz said at the chapel, which until modern times had forbidden women to wear colored underwear amid worries it miht provoke the glacier.

The Aletsch was once viewed as a threat because it was close enough to invade inhabited areas.  But today, it's the glacier's melting ice that threatens the villages.  The melting ice of the Aletsch threatens worsening floods in the valley and ultimately a loss of the water supply.

Experts predict the glacier will continue to shrink, even if temperatures remain constant, due to the warming of the last few decades that has not yet had its full impact.

Venetz said many of the villagers had started to question the vow, which has been memorialized every year since 1862 in a procession to the chapel on St. Ignatius' feast day, July 31.

Fiesch Mayor Herbert Volken came up with the idea to alter the vow after witnessing changes in the Glacier and surrounding environment.

The villages "were seeing nature change all around them," and recognized the glacier might soon need saving, Venetz said during a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

The glacier base is receding up the mountain by some 100 feet (30 meters) annually, according to  the conservation body Pro Natura.

University of Zurich geographer Hanspeter Holzhauser estimates the river of ice has retreated some 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) since peaking in 1860 at a length of 14 miles (23 kilometers).  Nearly half the recession has taken place since 1950.

There were "countless, horrible natural catastrophes" in the parish as the glacier expanded from the 17th through the 19th centuries, Venetz explained.

"These led to the big volumes of water with floods that brought great damage and calamity in our villages," he added.

Villagers should continue with the vow, Venetz said, but the request for divine assistance should be adjusted to reflect the new environmental reality.

"Praying should of course continue, because our villages should be spared from natural catastrophes," Venetz said during his sermon.

"We should at the same time pray that our glacier does not melt any further, but instead grows, and that the most important thing in life "” water "” remains well preserved."

Venetz said he would ask the local bishop to seek Pope Benedict XVI's permission to alter the vow.  A statement from the state government of Valais said a papal audience was scheduled for September or October.

"At our next procession, we might just be able to pray against climate change, global warming and the receding of the glacier," Venetz said.

Image Courtesy NASA


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