Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona: Broadened focus of nomination for World Heritage listing

Bern, 06.03.2008 - Under the new heading of “Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona”, Switzerland has submitted additional documents to UNESCO in Paris in support of the “Glarus overthrust” World Heritage candidate site. In an expanded comparative study, the nominated property, comprising an area of more than 300 km2 around Piz Sardona, is shown to be clearly ranked in first place worldwide – not only geologically, as an overthrust feature, but also as an excellent visibale illustration of mountain building processes and a contribution to our understanding of plate tectonics. At its forthcoming session in Quebec City (Canada) in early July, the World Heritage Committee will decide which nominated sites are to be included in the World Heritage List.

The nomination dossier submitted under the heading of "Glarus overthrust" in August 2006 was based on a comparative analysis, focusing on the thrust fault feature. This study showed that the fascinating mountain landscape between the Anterior Rhine valley, the Linth valley and Lake Walen renders visible in a globally unique manner the geological phenomenon of older rocks overlying younger ones.

When experts from the IUCN (World Conservation Union) inspected the site in September 2007, they recommended broadening the focus of the nomination beyond the specific geological topic of the overthrust to include the significance of the property in the context of mountain building processes and in enhancing our understanding of plate tectonics. The experts also suggested that a new name, encompassing these aspects, should be found for the property. The IUCN commended the high level of support and commitment shown by the local and cantonal authorities to the World Heritage nomination, and the open nature of the consultation processes organized by the federal authorities.

With a view to successful completion of the nomination process, the experts' recommendations were eagerly adopted. The two geology professors Adrian Pfiffner (Bern University) and Stefan M. Schmid (Basel University) carried out an additional comparative study of fifteen of the world's most prominent mountain ranges in relation to mountain building processes, taking four criteria into consideration - "scientific value", "scenic value", "geomorphic expression" and "educational value". The authors concluded that the Eastern Swiss Alps in the "Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona" (the new name for the property, referring to Piz Sardona) - clearly rank in first place worldwide and are thus of outstanding universal value for illustrating mountain building processes and enhancing our understanding of plate tectonics. In the authors' view, they therefore merit inclusion in the list of World Heritage properties.

Now that the additional nomination documentation has been submitted to UNESCO by the Federal Office for the Environment FOEN, the IUCN will undertake the final evaluation of the nomination dossier in the spring and make a recommendation to the World Heritage Committee. The decision on inscription will then by taken by this body between 2 and 10 July 2008 at its 32nd Session in Quebec City (Canada).

Ahead of this event, the sponsors, the communes and cantons and the federal authorities will need to decide on the renaming of the property in the other national languages - German, Romansh and Italian. The nomination has now been submitted in the two official UNESCO languages, English and French ("Haut lieu tectonique suisse Sardona").


What are the implications of World Heritage listing?

When a site is included in the World Heritage List, the communes and cantons concerned, together with the federal authorities, undertake to secure the long-term protection of the property. While listing is primarily an honour and a mark of global recognition, it also involves a commitment to preserve the property for future generations. A joint agreement to this effect will enter into force if the site is included in the World Heritage List. However, national sovereignty remains unaffected, as inscription by UNESCO does not trigger any additional regulations. Conservation remains subject to national legislation: parts of the property are already protected at the national, cantonal or regional level, such as Lochsite at Schwanden, parts of the Murg and Mürtschen valleys, the Graue Hörner, the Plaun Segnas Sut and the Glatschiu dil Segnas (glacier foreland).


Origins of the Glarus Alps

For decades, scientists struggled to explain the geological history of the Glarus Alps: normally, young rocks overlie older ones, but here the converse is true. Permian Verrucano rocks (between 250 and 300 million years old) are mainly found on top of flysch rocks (approx. 50 million years old). In the nineteenth century, the first geologists recognized that rock sheets more than a kilometre thick (the so‑called Helvetic nappes or thrust sheets) had evidently been displaced between the Aar Massif and the Gotthard Massif as a result of compression from the south. They were transported over 35 kilometres northwards, finally coming to rest on the original sedimentary cover of the Aar Massif.

This crucial insight revolutionized our understanding of the formation of the Alps. The explanation was generally accepted at the beginning of the twentieth century. Geologists had previously assumed that rock folds and mountains arose as a result of cooling of the Earth (the "contracting Earth hypothesis"). Now, however, experts acknowledged that folds and thrust faults were a product of dynamic displacement processes. An explanation of the mechanisms involved was provided by the concept of continental drift, subsequently confirmed by the theory of plate tectonics. The Glarus overthrust is exposed - and a clearly visible feature - from Pizol to Lochsite near Sool/Schwanden over a distance of 30 kilometres, running from east-northeast to west-southwest, and from Flims to Schwendi in the Weisstannental over a distance of 20 kilometres from south to north.

Address for enquiries

Bruno Stephan Walder, Head of Natural Heritage Section, Nature and Landscape Division, FOEN, mobile: +41 (0)79 312 92 59
David Imper, Project Manager, IG UNESCO World Natural Heritage candidate site Glarus overthrust, CH 8888 Heiligkreuz, Tel.: +41 (0)81 723 59 13
Professor A. Pfiffner, Chair of Scientific Advisory Committee, Bern University,
Tel.: +41 (0)31 631 87 57.


Federal Office for the Environment FOEN