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Melting glaciers are revealing the mummified bodies of soldiers, ancient icemen, and long-lost adventurers

An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle Tuesday Aug, 16, 2005. Scientists say that global warming has an increasing effect on the Arctic region with glaciers shrinking, temperatures of the arctic waters warming, and permafrost softening. (AP Photo/John McConnico
AP Photo/John McConnico
Frozen in time not much longer.
By Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Throughout the ages, ice and snow mummified the bodies of those who met their unfortunate end in a glacial snowbank. Take, for instance, frozen bodies that poked through a glacier on Mexico’s highest mountain earlier this year. They are suspected to be two climbers who went missing in 1959.

As warming temperatures peel back glaciers, corpses are coming out of the cold more frequently.

Perhaps most famously, the oldest intact human corpse ever found—a 5,300-year-old Bronze Age iceman nicknamed “Ötzi”—popped out of a melting glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, as highlights. Back in Ötzi’s era, the glacier stayed frozen all year. In 1999, scientists found an “iceman” in a melting British Columbia glacier. In South America, three Incan child mummies were found in northern Argentina in 2007. Thawing in Siberia has also revealed ancient Scythian warriors.

AP Photo
Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old mummy.

Other discoveries are not all that ancient. In glaciers around the world, crashed airplanes are a common source of mummified remains. Not far from where Ötzi was found in the Italian Alps, glacial retreat exposed soldiers who died in the First World War, in a little-known skirmish called the White War. As the Telegraph reports, the weather claimed more soldiers than fighting. Temperatures could fall to -30°C (-22°F), and they were under constant threat of the “white death”—being entombed by an avalanche.

Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento, via The Telegraph
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012.

For archaeologists, this is both exhilarating and alarming, as this Archaeology Magazine article notes. While the rapid pace of new discoveries is creating new opportunities to study past cultures. However, since mummies exposed to the elements begin decaying just as corpses in warmer climates do, archaeologists are now in a race against climate change.

Oddly enough, the archaeological challenges related to climate change aren’t limited to frozen glacial mummies. Mummies created by the Chinchorro culture that lived in coastal Chile and Peru—who pioneered mummification two millennia before the Egyptians—had survived for 7,000 years. Until recently, that is. In the last decade, mummies have been turning into black ooze; and scientists think the changing humidity resulting from climate change is the culprit.

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