Expat Life Matterhorn extraordinary switzerland

Extraordinary Answers to Improbable Questions about Switzerland

My latest book, Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex? provides, as its subtitle suggests, Extraordinary Answers to 66 Improbable Questions about Switzerland. I am originally from the US, but have lived in Switzerland for some 30 years, and long ago learned that all is not as it seems here. The questions in this book function as trapdoors—secret entrances into hidden places in the Swiss landscape and psyche.

If the questions in this book seem outrageous—Do Swiss Cows Commit Suicide? What Happens to a Corpse in a Crevasse? If Switzerland were a Swimming Pool, How Deep Would It Be? Do You Need a Phd to Vote in Swiss Elections?—the answers are even more so. In this and the next two issues of International School Parent Magazine I will provide a taste of what’s on offer in my book.

The first question we’ll look at is one you’ve no doubt asked yourself many times:

How many Toblerones Would It Take to Make a Matterhorn?

The answer begins as follows:

This is a big project. First we cover the Matterhorn in plaster of paris, let it dry, and remove the plaster mold. We’ll need somewhere to store it so we’ll put it upside down with its point in Zermatt and its base leaning between the Zinal Rothorn and the Obergabelhorn. Things will be a little shady in the valley for a while, but it’s only temporary, and the way the mold is leaning will allow the town to get some morning sun.

Then we’ll need to get rid of the actual Matterhorn. We’ll saw it through at its base and put it somewhere—where?  

After rejecting a couple of alternatives, we decide on a location:

We’ll dump the Matterhorn into Lake Geneva. Better than dump it, even—we’ll place it in Lake Geneva. We can put it opposite Lausanne in the middle of the lake, where it’s 310 meters deep—so the top 1700 meters of the Matterhorn will stick out of the water. It makes a very steep island. It will be a wonderful tourist attraction and people can go out in boats and paddle around it. Not too close though, as the lower elevation will cause the permafrost to melt and all sorts of huge boulders will constantly be falling into the water—which will make an amazing show, far outdoing the Jet d’Eau in Geneva for hydrotechnics.

Then, after discussing how to get it into the lake without loosing a tsunami that would destroy Geneva (see next question!), we get down to the business of pouring chocolate into our mold. We’ll never get together enough Toblerones, so we decide to ask all the other chocolate factories in Switzerland to pitch in. But it’s still going to take a while:

Annual chocolate production in Switzerland is 180,000 tons, which is only about 1/20,000 of what we’ll need. But we’re patient. We’ll just have to save up all the chocolate produced in Switzerland for the next 20,000 years.

This is going to get expensive!

The chocolate alone will cost about 30 trillion francs, which is ten times the current value of Swiss real estate (see Question 30)—and we’re going to have to hire riot police to quell the disruptions instigated by all the chocolate addicts who are furious at what we’re doing because they won’t get any chocolate.

After 20,000 years the mold is full. We turn it upside-down on the spot from which we removed the real Matterhorn, and: Voilà! But there are consequences:

Remember, chocolate addicts have been starved for 20 millennia. There’s going to be a massive crowd rushing to this Matterhorn; there will be stampedes and tramplings; the security forces will be overwhelmed. Millions may die. But there’s plenty of chocolate. In fact, there are 20 quadrillion food calories in this mountain, which is enough to provide the entire population of the world with energy for two and a half years. If we decide to be fair and distribute it evenly, farmers all across the planet can take a break while our mountain is devoured.

Despite the chaos, we try to enjoy our creation:

And now, our great work complete, we sit back and think on its beginnings. Why, we ask, did we do all this? And we recall that the shape of the Toblerone bar, and the image of the Matterhorn depicted on its packaging, inspired us to our feat.

A nearby chocolate connoisseur, sitting on his haunches and licking his sticky fingers, laughs. “Is that really why you did it?” he asks. “But don’t you know?”

“Know what?” we reply.

“The Toblerone bar,” he says, “was invented in 1908. The Matterhorn was stuck on the wrapper in 1970. A silly sales gimmick. It was never supposed to be the Matterhorn. Theodor Tobler decided on the shape of his creation in Paris, at the circus. He was watching a troupe of tumblers form a human pyramid, and—Eureka!”

How easy it is, on a mistaken assumption, to waste 20,000 years of one’s life.

*

The second question in this issue will appear to most people like a joke—but turns out to be deadly serious. As it is somewhat shorter than the first, here is the answer in its entirety.

Could a Tsunami Strike Switzerland?

The Tauredenum Event could be the title of a disaster movie. And a disaster it was, but not a movie—yet. Here is a description from the contemporary chronicler Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. The year is 563.

A great prodigy appeared in Gaul at the fortress of Tauredenum, which was situated on high ground above the River Rhône. Here a curious bellowing sound was heard for more than sixty days: then the whole hillside was split open and separated from the mountain nearest to it, and it fell into the river, carrying with it men, churches, property and houses. The banks of the river were blocked and the water flowed backwards. The water flooded the higher reaches and submerged and carried everything which was on its banks.

And yet again the inhabitants were taken unawares: as the accumulated water suddenly broke through the blockage, it drowned those who lived lower down, just as it had done higher up, destroying their houses, killing their cattle, and carrying away and overwhelming with its violent and unexpected inundation everything which stood on its banks as far as the city of Geneva. It is told by many that the mass of water was so great that it went over the walls of the city.

Massive landslide causes collapse of Rhône delta.

In 2012 geophysicists at the University of Geneva published a paper analyzing huge deposits of sediment near where the Rhône enters the lake. Their conclusion was that the Tauredenum event involved a massive landslide that caused a collapse of the Rhône delta and a slippage of sediment at the eastern end of the lake, and this in turn created a tsunami. A 13-meter high wave, traveling at 70 kilometers per hour, would have reached Lausanne 15 minutes after the slippage. Three quarters of an hour after that, its height reduced to 8 meters, it would have inundated Geneva, crashing over the city walls just as Gregory reported.

The Swiss Seismological Service agrees. It catalogues several tsunamis that have crossed Swiss lakes and inflicted widespread devastation. An earthquake near Aigle set off a tsunami in Lake Geneva in 1584. In 1601 an earthquake caused submarine landslides in Lake Luzern, and a 4-meter high wave engulfed the city. Luzern was hit again in 1681, this time with a 5-meter tsunami. And in 1806 the Goldau landslide, which destroyed the village of that name and killed 500 of its inhabitants, unleashed a 10-meter high wall of water in Lake Laurerz.

Will it happen again?

Today there are over a million people living on low-lying land around Lake Geneva. And it turns out that the Tauredenum event was not a one-off. In fact,

The sedimentary record of the deep basin of Lake Geneva, in combination with the historical record, show that during the past 3,695 years, at least six tsunamis were generated by mass movements, indicating that the tsunami hazard in the Lake Geneva region should not be neglected…We believe that the risk associated with tsunamis in lakes is currently underestimated, and that these phenomena require greater attention if future catastrophes are to be avoided.

So wrote the Geneva geophysicists, who calculated that we can expect a tsunami on Lake Geneva, on average, once every 625 years.

A big one happened in 563. A small one in 1584. Now it’s 2018. Do the math.

Next time you’re in Geneva, don’t just worry about what’s going on in the Large Hadron Collider out by the airport (see Question 9: Will Geneva Vanish in a Black Hole?). Keep an eye on that big lake as well—for an only partly unexpected “event.”

In the next issue we’ll have a look at whether the Swiss Alps are growing or shrinking, and why.

About the Author: Ashley Curtis is the author of four books recently or soon to be published by Swiss presses, as well as numerous articles and short stories. He works part-time as a freelance editor based in Switzerland. As well as “Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?”, his Swiss works include “Error and Loss”, “O, Switzerland!”, and the upcoming “Hexeneinmaleins”. Find out more about Ashley at: Ashleycurtis.net

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