On the Trail of the Glaciers: Caucasus 2011

30 July 2011: this year, our expedition brings us to the Georgian Caucasus. The goal is to reach the Tviberi glacier, an important debris-covered glacier, in order to monitor its fusion trend with special instrumentation, and repeat photographs taken by Mor Von Dechy in 1884 and Vittorio Sella in 1890 of the region’s most important glaciers, such as Tszaneri, Kazebi, Chalaat, Leskir and Lardaadi Adishi. 

On 2 August, after an entire day of searching over land at the limits of practicability, we find the spot where Vittorio Sella took his historical photo of Chalaat, which, with its front, reaches the lowest part of all of Georgia, 1860 metres. The survey, besides demonstrating that Chalaat is heavily receded (by about 3 kilometres, with a loss of thickness of 200 metres), also showed us the impossibility of reaching Leskir: the bridges to cross the river had collapsed, the path had been swallowed up by vegetation and the imposing frontal retreat of the glacier had modified the morphology of the front, making it completely inaccessible.

Around 15 August, to repeat Vittorio Sella’s masterful image of Lardaadi Adishi, one of the most spectacular glaciers of the Svaneti, we had to undertake a challenging 3-day expedition, with carriers and horses.

Reaching the front of the glacier at the bottom of the valley with great difficulty, we managed to carry out surveys of the numerous lateral-frontal moraines that demonstrate this ice colossus’ dynamism and reactivity to climate change. The retreating of the front compared to the greatest historical expansion, which probably occurred before the first half of the 1800s, is just over a kilometre, while the loss of thickness of the entire valley strip is much more evident. The relatively contained contraction, compared to other glaciers in the region, is perhaps due to the high altitude (well over 4000 metres) of the two reservoirs.

The last photographic goal of the expedition is the repetition of the famous panoramic photograph taken by Vittorio Sella 121 years ago from the peak of Mount Banguriani, at 3885 metres. Once at the top, the exhaustion of the ascent disappears and the excitement of looking out onto the opposite side takes over. The panorama surrounding me is breath-taking. I observe the seven images by Sella that I brought with me as a visual reference, and I immediately notice heavy retreating and the colossi of the many surrounding glaciers: some of them are smaller and some of them have disappeared completely. 

At the end of the expedition, which took two years of preliminary studies and logistical organisation and over a month of groundwork, the report is: four main glaciers examined, twenty comparison photographs taken from the same vantage point as the historical ones, many instrumental surveys, three helicopter surveys.

A few days from our return, the early results, based on photographic comparisons and scientific observations, are already clear: the glaciers in the Caucasus chain unfortunately show significant retreating of their fronts and an equally conspicuous loss of thickness.

Text by Parallelozero, loosely taken from: “The Travel Diaries of Fabiano Ventura © 2009 - 2018”