The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Historians found a WWI bunker ‘frozen in time’ in the Alps. Climate change makes it a bittersweet discovery.

The Stelvio Pass area in Italy, with the glaciers of the Ortler Alps in the background. (Courtesy of Stelvio National Park/Enrico Bigno Pozzi)

Tucked within an icy mountain lies a meticulously preserved World War I bunker.

Climate change means we can now see it.

The intact cavern-cum-barracks contains munitions, books, cigarette holders and animal bones, and it was once teeming with Austro-Hungarian troops. They staked out on Mount Scorluzzo, almost 3,000 meters (about 9,800 feet) above sea level, on the Italian-Swiss border, now part of Italy’s Stelvio National Park territory.

“These places were literally frozen in time,” Giovanni Cadioli, a historian and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Padua in Italy, told The Washington Post.

Now, he added, climate change is playing a “pivotal role” in their discovery, as warming temperatures have led to the melting of glaciers and permafrost, revealing a “time capsule.”

Amid the backdrop of the COP26 global climate change summit in Scotland, Cadioli underscored that the impressive findings were bittersweet: “We’d really rather not have retreating glaciers.”

The artificial caves were made in 1915 by blowing up parts of the mountain and transforming them into makeshift barracks and shelters to house hundreds of European troops.

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The barracks — along with the machine gun emplacements, sheltered walkways and tunnels — were held by Austro-Hungarian soldiers who were fighting Italian troops. They vacated their position on Nov. 3, 1918, in line with retreat orders, just days ahead of the armistice agreement on Nov. 11, which ended World War I.

From 1915 to 1918, European soldiers were stationed in the extremely harsh mountain terrain, facing punitive climatic conditions year-round. Nature, frostbite, falls and avalanches ultimately claimed more lives than enemy fire, Cadioli said.

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Another barrack on the same mountain was excavated in 2017 after ice melted, revealing an entire wooden superstructure that was disassembled and transported, along with about 300 artifacts, to Bormio, in Italy’s Lombardy region, where it will be on show in a museum starting in 2022. This latest barrack has not yet been excavated.

In the cave discovered in 2017, researchers even found frozen mounds of hay that soldiers used to sleep on, containing seeds that were preserved so well that they were put in the sun to dry and were later planted. They have now blossomed 100 years on, Cadioli said, in what he called a “heartwarming” anecdote.

“Life was preserved even in a place that was really mainly about death,” he said.

The goals of the excavations are to secure the area and preserve organic traces conserved in the ice, which, through historical and scientific research, will shed light on “alpine warfare” and the lives of the soldiers, Cadioli said. The various projects involve about 40 researchers in disciplines such as botanicals, cartography and glaciology, and they are supported by Stelvio National Park and the University of Padua.

It’s highly likely that there are more caves to uncover, Cadioli said, but the weather means researchers can only access the sites from May to October.

He added with excitement that he had felt like “a little Indiana Jones” stumbling upon treasure troves when he examined the barracks. “This is something that historians dream about.”

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