5:30 p.m. | Updated with a tweet |Jack Cushman, a Times journalist with a longstanding interest in the environment, just sent me a recent National Geographic web feature on a Vatican decision, prompted by the warming climate, to approve a change in a centuries-old annual Catholic ritual and prayer in a couple of villages high in the Swiss Alps. The longstanding rite was aimed at stopping the rapid advance of nearby glaciers during a period now called the Little Ice Age. Now, with the glaciers rapidly retreating, the revised prayer speaks of the value of the ice.
Here?s a snippet:
?We prayed for the ice to recede, and our prayer worked?too well,? said Herbert Volken, mountain guide and mayor of Conches, the district that includes Fiesch.
In 2009 the local parish council petitioned the Vatican to allow a change in the wording of the prayer. A year later the Holy See agreed, and Volken hopes the new prayer will work as well as the last one.
The detailed piece brought back memories of my visit to the same region in 1993 to write a feature for Cond? Nast Traveler Magazine on how the vanishing of these great glaciers was challenging the identity of the Swiss. I reposted that feature in full here in 2008. Here?s the opening section, which hinted then at what has now been made official:
In 1818, the farmers who ranged cattle on the steep mountainsides above Brig, a small town in southern Switzerland, organized a religious procession to deter a looming catastrophe. They marched from the church up a steep valley to the Aletsch, the largest glacier in the Alps. The 16-mile-long river of ice, 3,000 feet deep at its center, was fed by the endless snows falling on the two-mile-high ramparts of the Aletschhorn, Jungfrau, Munch, and adjacent peaks. Through more than a century of unusually cold weather, glaciers throughout Europe had been advancing steadily, and now the great, grinding mass of the Aletsch was uprooting a forest and threatening to overwhelm the farmers? summer cottages and cow pastures. Priests led the way to the glacier?s gravel-encrusted snout. They prayed for divine intervention. A tall wooden cross was planted in the earth to turn back the ice.
The march to the glacier evolved into an annual rite. Finally, around 1865, the forces of nature complied. The cold spell, later dubbed the Little Ice Age, ended. The Aletsch began to retreat.
These days, in an ironic turnabout, some residents of Brig and surrounding alpine communities are quietly praying for the Aletsch to come back. Once the glacier began to withdraw, it never stopped. The ice has melted back more than a mile into the mountains from the spot where the cross was planted. It has lost more than 600 feet of thickness in places, and is still shrinking about 11 feet a year. The Aletsch is not alone. All told, the Swiss Alps have lost 50 percent of the mass of glacial ice that was there 130 years ago. And the melting continues. [Read the rest.]
You can get a nice look at the Aletsch glacier, the focus of my piece, here:
This Twitter comment is worth posting as an addendum: