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The snow just uncovered from the blankets keeps the shape of their folds. Photo: Marco Ranocchiari

The wrapped witness

As protective blankets are removed, Presena glacier tells its stories
As protective blankets are removed, Presena glacier tells its stories

The last summer sun shines on the square, dazzling surfaces of Presena glacier. In contrast with the surrounding majesty of rugged peaks, snowfields and moon-like rock expanses, the glacier is not solitary. An incessant noise of ski-lifts and bulldozers fills the scene, as huge winches roll up the big tarpaulins and drag them away like ropes.

The snow just uncovered from the blankets keeps their shape. The effect of the shining, square shapes among the glaring light is that of a disturbing work of contemporary art. In a certain sense, it is: how humans create a landscape, even where it should be the wildest: the ethereal grey-blue reflection of a glacier.

The tarpaulins were put on at the beginning of June and, before their recent removal, they protected between 3 and 4 metres of snow from the summer sun. The 110,000 square metres of the icefield covered nearly half of the total surface, rises in relief with straight edges. Even if it has been a good, relatively cool year no snow is left outside the blankets, and naked ice emerges among the debris.

The sheets will be stored in a warehouse nearby, ready to be reused next year. The work, which lasted over two weeks with the contribution of about ten workers,  this year took place in the spotlight. Presena is a famous place in Italy. But this year the attention has surprised many.

“I gave something like fifty interviews, without exaggeration” declares Davide Panizza, president of Carosello Tonale, the ski resort company that is taking charge of the management of Presena.

For climate activists, wrapping the glacier is just a clumsy attempt to convince the public that business can go on as usual. The Extinction Rebellion movement, together with the group ‘Outdoor Manifesto’, climbed up the mountain all the way to the bulldozers. Their banner read: “uncover the truth”.

The memory of glaciers

The truth is actually that, without the tarpaulins, there wouldn’t be much left of this glacier.  It barely reaches 3,000 m, just not enough to survive at the current conditions.

These Adamello mountains, of which Presena is part, were the most dreadful front for the Italians during World War I. Thousands were forced to spend dire years among the peaks, excavating, building barracks and walkways on the abyss and freezing to death.

One hundred years after, some mountains are literally rusted with barbed wire. Sometimes the glaciers return an intact grenade, a boot, a body. When wandering in these peaks it is hard not to think of them as a place where history can be literally seen.

Barbed wires from the military posts over the glacier. Photo: Marco Ranocchiari

Presena overlooks the Tonale, a vital communication pass. Italians needed it but didn’t control it until almost the end of the conflict. In 1916  an unlikely attack on skis ended up with a massacre. Later, when peace and wellness came, the pass would allow thousands of tourists to access the mountain without any effort. Tens of ski-lifts covered the mountain, including the glacier, that, up to the 80s, was one even used for summer ski.

Like the landscape, glaciers dramatically changed. The hut “To the Fallen of Adamello” once rested in front of the ice mass: today it is suspended above a chasm dozens of metres deep, supported by concrete pillars.

Conservation or business?

When the project started in 2008, Presena was in a desperate condition: it had shrunk by 60% and split into two separate parts, with the risk of further breaking.

In each of the following summers, even the hottest, the blankets would succeed in saving at least one metre of snow, while the covered area progressively enlarged. 

But in 2014 the contribution provided by the autonomous Province of Trento was unexpectedly cut off, leaving the ski-lift company alone to face the increasing costs, which in 2020 passed 400,000 euros.

“We are rendering a service to the community. The glacier is not only a heritage site, and it holds precious water,” complains ski-lift company president Panizza. When Coronavirus forced the resort to close, the company lost millions. ‘If it goes like this’, he says, ‘I don’t think we can resist for long‘.

Yet, despite everything, the ski-resort seems in good shape and has just invested 26 million euros for new lifts.

The feeling that, beyond all good intentions, the only benefit for preserving the glacier is its economic revenue is widespread. In the best scenario, only a few glaciers in the world could be preserved in this way, in an effort consuming energy and money, and with a huge effect on the landscape. 

Extinction Rebellion activists on the glacier. Photo: Luca Albrisi

Even the glacier monitoring service of the Province has ceased studying this glacier, considering it way too artificial

Giovanni Baccolo, a glaciologist at the University of Milano Bicocca, provokingly argued that a new term should be established: the ‘artificial glaciers, i.e. those glaciers that given their geographic and climatic contexts should already be gone but survive because of artificial efforts. Another possible name: economic glaciers‘. 

And yet in Presena,  where the distinction between what is human and what is natural has vanished long ago, these terms do not sound so ironic after all.