Bodies Missing for 75 Years Found—Thanks to Melting Glacier

Climate change may have just helped solve a cold case in Switzerland.

During routine maintenance on equipment near the Tsanfleuron glacier in the Swiss Alps last Thursday, an employee of the Swiss ski company Glacier 3000 saw a foot protruding from the ice. Upon closer inspection, he saw two other boots, a hat, and the blackened remains of a couple frozen in time.

Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, once a provincial shoemaker and school teacher, had been missing for the past 75 years.

"He informed security, and I contacted the police," said Bernhard Tschannen, the company's CEO. By Friday a helicopter flew to the region, cutting a large chuck of the ice from the glacier to ensure the couple's remains were removed intact. By July 19, DNA confirmed the identities of the couple who went missing on August 15, 1942.

According to reports from local Swiss newspaper Le Matin, which first reported the find, these aren't the first bodies to have been pulled from the snowy region.

The couple were spotted in a flat part of the glacier where their feet protruded from the ice.

Three brothers that disappeared in 1926 were later found in 2012; a climber who fell in 1954 was later recovered in 2008; and in 2008, a couple was lost in the mountain and later found in 2012.

Since 1925, 280 people have been listed as missing in the Alps or nearby regions.

"Every year we lose a meter or half a meter of ice," said Tschannen. "Eighty years ago this glacier was much bigger than it is now."

Tschannen attributes the discovery of the Dumoulins to global warming, saying the bodies were exposed in a part of the glacier exposed to rapid melting.

The ice surrounding the prized and picturesque alps is indeed melting. Just how quickly is a matter of debate.

A study published in 2006 made the dire prediction that the ice would be gone by 2100 during summers. An even more dire prediction in 2007 said the ice would vanish by 2050. (Read about the effort to collect glacier ice cores before they disappear.)

Reports from the World Glacier Monitoring Service based at the University of Zurich estimate that from 2000 to 2010, the Alpine glaciers lost a meter of thickness every year.

In a 2013 report, the director of the service described the ice loss as "unprecedented."

"It was a tragedy," Tschannen said of the Dumoulins. "They left behind seven kids, and only two remain."

That the Dumoulins were found in such well-preserved condition is no coincidence. Ice mountains, such as the Alps, have cold, dry conditions that slow degradation of remains.

Climate 101: Glaciers

Ice is such a good preservative, in fact, that the remains of a man who died 5,000 years ago were discovered in astonishingly good condition. Nicknamed Otzi the Iceman for the discovery in the Otzal Alps, Otzi is assumed to have been buried in ice shortly after his death, stunting his deterioration.

If any other remains lie buried in the ice, only time will tell.