A first indication that ancient ice was still present in the Tyrolean Alps arose from the 1991 discovery of the famous ~5200 years old Tyrolean Ice Man who emerged from the low elevation ablating ice field of the Hauslabjoch (3210 m) located ~30 km from Mt. Ortles, the highest mountain in South Tyrol, in the Italian Eastern Alps. This discovery provided an exceptional time window into our past history, focusing on how humans were interacting with the Alpine environment in the Neolithic and how rapid climate change may have affected their life, also contributing to bury the Tyrolean Ice Man first in snow and then in ice.
Multiple and widespread lines of evidence point to a rapid climatic change ~5200 years BP toward cooler/wetter conditions. Examples include the drop in temperature inferred from the Kilimanjaro ice core and the Soreq Cave (Israel), the transition from the green to the dry Sahara and the recent discovery of ~5200 years old plants that, similarly to the Tyrolean Ice Man, continue to emerge perfectly preserved from the retreating Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes. This widespread climatic change possibly influenced many civilizations around the world. Hierarchical societies formed in the overpopulated Nile Valley & Mesopotamia while Neolithic settlements in the inner deserts of Arabia were abandoned. However, details and timing of interactions of Alpine populations and ecosystems within this period of rapid climatic change, and those that happened in the following millennia are largely unknown.
In 2009 we formed a collaborative team of American and European academic and administrative institutes gathered in the so-called “Ortles Project”. We foresaw the opportunity to obtain a unique and potentially long history, linking changes in climate and ecosystem conditions to past human activities, by retrieving some ice cores extracted from Mt. Ortles in the Tyrolean Alps. The glacier Alto dell’Ortles (Bolzano Province, Italy) covers the northwestern flank of Mt. Ortles (3905 m), the highest mountain in the Tyrolean Alps, from its gently sloped top part at 3870 m toward the lower ablation area at ~2900 m. Mt. Ortles is located in a low precipitation area and we believe has the potential to contain much older ice than what is normally observed in the Alps.
In 2011 we retrieved 4 ice cores from Mt. Ortles thanks to the financial support of the National Science Foundation and the local administration of the Province of Bolzano. Today we are analyzing the ice by extracting useful proxies that provide key information for characterizing the past environment in the Southern Tyrolean Alps such as temperature (stable isotopes), aridity (dust), vegetation extension and composition (major ions/pollen), changes in land use (dust composition), biomass burning (levoglucosan), metal mining and smelting activities (trace elements). Their synchronous registration and identification in the ice will shed new light about the vulnerability, resilience, and adaptability of humans to changing climate and ecosystems from centennial to millennial time scale.