Swiss now pray that glacier will stop shrinking

Aug 06, 2009 By BRADLEY S. KLAPPER , Associated Press Writer
FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2007 file photo two tourists look at the ice structure of the Aletschgletscher glacier near Bettmeralp in the canton of Valais, Switzerland. Villagers from the deeply Roman Catholic south Switzerland have for centuries been offering a sacred vow to God to protect them from the once-advancing ice mass of the Great Aletsch glacier. (AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron)

(AP) -- Villagers from deeply Roman Catholic south Switzerland have for centuries offered a sacred vow to God to protect them from the advancing ice mass of the Great Aletsch glacier.

Global warming is making them want to reverse their prayers, and the Alpine faithful are seeking the permission of the pope.

Since the vow was established in 1678, the deal was simple: the citizens of the isolated mountain hamlets of Fiesch and Fieschertal would pledge to lead virtuous lives. In exchange, God would spare their homes and livelihoods from being swallowed by Europe's largest glacier as it expanded toward the valley with heavy winter snows.

Times have changed, and the once-fearsome Aletsch is melting amid temperatures that are 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 Fahrenheit) warmer than in the 19th century. The pastor at the Ernerwald Chapel has warned his flock that a new danger threatens.

"We all know - and the Holy Father reminded us in his Easter message - that an unprecedented change in the climate is taking place," Rev. Pascal Venetz said in his sermon to 100 people at the chapel, where until modern times pious women were prohibited from wearing colored underwear for fear of provoking the glacier.

"Glacier is ice, ice is water and water is life," Venetz said to the villagers from the Valais region, which has sent its sons 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."

The Aletsch was once seen as a threat because it could encroach on inhabited areas. These days, the glacier is more of a threat because of its , which risks worsening floods in the valley and, eventually, a loss of water supply. Experts say the glacier will continue to shrink - even if temperatures stay at current levels - because the warming of the last few decades has yet to take full effect.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Venetz said many townsfolk have begun questioning the ancient vow that has been commemorated every year since 1862 in a procession to the chapel on July 31, St. Ignatius' feast day.

The idea to alter the vow came from Fiesch Mayor Herbert Volken, but the concern was not driven by worldly or secular impulses. Instead, the villages "were seeing nature change all around them," and realized the glacier might soon need saving, Venetz said.

Conservation body Pro Natura says the glacier base is receding up the mountain by about 100 feet (30 meters) a year. University of Zurich geographer Hanspeter Holzhauser estimates the river of ice has retreated 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) since peaking in 1860 at a length of 14 miles (23 kilometers). Nearly half of the shrinkage has happened since 1950.

Venetz said there were "countless, horrible natural catastrophes" in his parish from the 17th to the 19th centuries as the glacier expanded. "These led to the big volumes of water with floods that brought great damage and calamity in our villages," he said.

Villagers should continue with the vow, but the request for divine assistance should be adjusted to conform with the changing reality of nature, the pastor said.

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

He said he would ask the local bishop to seek Pope Benedict XVI's permission to change the vow, and a statement from the cantonal (state) government of Valais said a papal audience was planned 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.

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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User comments : 19

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4.5 / 5 (6) Aug 06, 2009
For centuries the Papacy has kept these people in ignorant submission by claiming to have some sort of "intercessory power" with God to work in their behalf.

Time for these folks to open their eyes and give the priests the boot.
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 06, 2009
So, which is caused by GW Bush, advancing or retreating, and which were they praying for again?
3 / 5 (4) Aug 06, 2009
If I wore a white thong to church would it anger the glacier god? Perhaps the global warming god wants us to wear red underwear. Lets all just start wearing red underwear and let god take care of the global warming thing.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 06, 2009
Oh, so THAT's what caused the glacier to melt. Gee, if the Big Cheese lets them change their prayer maybe everything will be fine.

Be sure to let us know how it all works out.

Just another reminder of ubiquitous ignorance.
5 / 5 (4) Aug 06, 2009
Two religions teaming up, how refreshing.
4 / 5 (4) Aug 06, 2009
I don't know whether to laugh or lash out in rage at these people.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2009
Interesting bit of history, but the townspeople's fears don't appear to have any basis in fact. If you doubt this, just take a look at Bettmeralp in Google Earth. Now, there are towns down canyon from the glacier that might be threatened, as well as a dam, but the town itself sits quite high above the glacial canyon.
Oh well, if the fires of hell don't get you, the glacier will.... lol!
1 / 5 (1) Aug 07, 2009
Interesting bit of history, but the townspeople's fears don't appear to have any basis in fact. If you doubt this, just take a look at Bettmeralp in Google Earth. Now, there are towns down canyon from the glacier that might be threatened, as well as a dam, but the town itself sits quite high above the glacial canyon.

Oh well, if the fires of hell don't get you, the glacier will.... or the preachers... lol!
1 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2009
I think perhaps the point was missed. This article is as much a story of global warming changing human behaviour as were the stories about the Artic Hunters and the Greenland Fishermen. The global climate changes affecting day-to-day activities of people around the ... well, the globe.

I don't like to see all this 'religion bashing' on PhysOrg ... science has, and continues to be, heavily sponsored by religious groups in terms of money and of the high quality of education provided at their schools and universities. More, science has to thank the religious orders who have preserve much literature, including science, through centuries where science dwindled in adverse conditions (not caused those religions).

If the religious can tolerate scientific, we must all endevour to reciprocate. Belief in one thing is not greater than the other, and neither are completely mutually exclusive.

As for those 'poor ignorant manipulated mountain folks', their faith and life style has permitted them to live and prosper on the edge of disaster for centuries ... I think they deserve our admiration much more than our pity.
5 / 5 (3) Aug 07, 2009

They're praying to God rather than doing anything constructive. You think that's defensible, well, then you're just as far gone.

Even by the tenets of their religion, God doesn't do anything for those who don't start it themselves.
not rated yet Aug 07, 2009
The article does not state that those people do, it discusses a change in local ritual that requires a well known religious leader to accommodate climate change. From what I know of the Swiss, they do much more than prey. If you were to visit them, I am sure that you would find their culture and technology highly evolved and long established.
not rated yet Aug 07, 2009
I don't think the townspeople are stupid - they understand climate warning. They are simply stuck with their carrot and stick folklore to lead virtuous lives. After a while the stick needs to be changed for something more meaningful.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 07, 2009
This is just one of MANY examples of the clergy (not just Catholic) manipulating people:

--This earthquake (glacier/tornado/mudslide/volcanic eruption/etc,etc) is God's punishment for your sins--straighten up (pay up) or you will go to HELL.

I wonder what they'll say when some natural disaster destroys the Vatican. THEY have enough sins to REALLY merit something like that (Concordats with mass murderers, molesting children(and covering it up), supporting BOTH sides of almost every war the last 1000 years, living in shameless luxury while other people starve...etc)

And you want us to be tolerant?--Please the time for tolerance is OVER!
not rated yet Aug 07, 2009
The time for intolerance is over.
It has cost America enough already, don't you think?
5 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2009
To tolerate any blatantly corrupt group--gives them a license to continue.

How many more religiously inspired wars and crusades are you willing to tolerate?

At the very least it is time that they recieve the disrepect that they so justly deserve.

5 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2009
The time for intolerance is over.

It has cost America enough already, don't you think?

I don't tolerate anyone. I either accept them or I don't. Tolerance is putting up with something that you don't accept. It perpetuates divide.

As for the cost put upon America, I'd say the cost of religion of any sort is far greater upon the country. After all, look at the ridiculous persecution pushed upon the people by the government.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2009
I don't tolerate anyone. I either accept them or I don't. Tolerance is putting up with something that you don't accept.

I like that, Vel, well said.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 11, 2009
"For those who believe, no proof is necessary.
For those who do not believe, no proof is ever enough"
Stuart Chase
not rated yet Aug 12, 2009
It is also true that some people never learn.

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