The Cryosphere (Nov 2016)

Age of the Mt. Ortles ice cores, the Tyrolean Iceman and glaciation of the highest summit of South Tyrol since the Northern Hemisphere Climatic Optimum

  • P. Gabrielli,
  • C. Barbante,
  • G. Bertagna,
  • M. Bertó,
  • D. Binder,
  • A. Carton,
  • L. Carturan,
  • F. Cazorzi,
  • G. Cozzi,
  • G. Dalla Fontana,
  • M. Davis,
  • F. De Blasi,
  • R. Dinale,
  • G. Dragà,
  • G. Dreossi,
  • D. Festi,
  • M. Frezzotti,
  • J. Gabrieli,
  • S. P. Galos,
  • P. Ginot,
  • P. Heidenwolf,
  • T. M. Jenk,
  • N. Kehrwald,
  • D. Kenny,
  • O. Magand,
  • V. Mair,
  • V. Mikhalenko,
  • P. N. Lin,
  • K. Oeggl,
  • G. Piffer,
  • M. Rinaldi,
  • U. Schotterer,
  • M. Schwikowski,
  • R. Seppi,
  • A. Spolaor,
  • B. Stenni,
  • D. Tonidandel,
  • C. Uglietti,
  • V. Zagorodnov,
  • T. Zanoner,
  • P. Zennaro

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 10, no. 6
pp. 2779 – 2797


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In 2011 four ice cores were extracted from the summit of Alto dell'Ortles (3859 m), the highest glacier of South Tyrol in the Italian Alps. This drilling site is located only 37 km southwest from where the Tyrolean Iceman, ∼ 5.3 kyrs old, was discovered emerging from the ablating ice field of Tisenjoch (3210 m, near the Italian–Austrian border) in 1991. The excellent preservation of this mummy suggested that the Tyrolean Iceman was continuously embedded in prehistoric ice and that additional ancient ice was likely preserved elsewhere in South Tyrol. Dating of the ice cores from Alto dell'Ortles based on 210Pb, tritium, beta activity and 14C determinations, combined with an empirical model (COPRA), provides evidence for a chronologically ordered ice stratigraphy from the modern glacier surface down to the bottom ice layers with an age of ∼ 7 kyrs, which confirms the hypothesis. Our results indicate that the drilling site has continuously been glaciated on frozen bedrock since ∼ 7 kyrs BP. Absence of older ice on the highest glacier of South Tyrol is consistent with the removal of basal ice from bedrock during the Northern Hemisphere Climatic Optimum (6–9 kyrs BP), the warmest interval in the European Alps during the Holocene. Borehole inclinometric measurements of the current glacier flow combined with surface ground penetration radar (GPR) measurements indicate that, due to the sustained atmospheric warming since the 1980s, an acceleration of the glacier Alto dell'Ortles flow has just recently begun. Given the stratigraphic–chronological continuity of the Mt. Ortles cores over millennia, it can be argued that this behaviour has been unprecedented at this location since the Northern Hemisphere Climatic Optimum.