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Glacier surveys

Theodolite on a glacier sheet and a digital terrain model of a mountain range

Picture: iStock.com / Massimo Merlini; iStock.com / StudioM1

The rate at which climate change is causing the Alpine glaciers to melt can be determined from the 120-year-old mountain maps created by Sebastian Finsterwalder. For decades, this multi-talented scientist tirelessly trekked through the mountains, analyzed photos and took to the skies in a hot-air balloon to survey the land. In the process, he developed geometric methods which are still used today by the algorithms of modern 3D software.

Glaciers retreating due to climate change

Armed with crampons, a pickax and measuring instruments, the young mathematician and geodesist Sebastian Finsterwalder climbed the Ötztal Alps in 1889 along with two research colleagues and a porter. The undertaking was both challenging and dangerous. They spent weeks surveying moraine ridges, glacier edges, fault lines and cliff faces – all to create the first accurate map of the Vernagtferner glacier. Just three years later, in 1892, Finsterwalder was teaching at Technische Hochschule München, having acquired a professorship. He became the first person to map all of the Bavarian glaciers in the Wetterstein mountains and the Berchtesgaden Alps – both on foot and from a hot-air balloon.

Finsterwalder’s life’s work as a geometrician, geodesist, physicist and engineer remain invaluable to this day. His mountain maps, for instance, show how far Alpine glaciers have retreated over the past 120 years due to climate change. His mathematical approach created an all-important scientific foundation for the task of surveying the earth’s surface. He used all the intricacies of descriptive geometry to obtain an accurate picture of the landscape – using only photos, drawings and as few actual measurements as possible. The methods he discovered are still important today for satellite surveying and the 3D software used by engineering companies, and even for computer games, animated films and 3D cinema.

“He [Sebastian Finsterwalder] never held back his ideas and never considered monetizing them through patents. Instead, he always unreservedly and unselfishly shared his findings and discoveries with friends, students and the public.”

Sebastian Finsterwalder

Geodesist Otto von Gruber, 1937, on the 75th birthday of Sebastian Finsterwalder

Picture: Österreichischer Alpenverein

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