Glacier collapse kills nine hikers amid record heat in Italy’s Dolomites; several injured
At least nine people are dead and more are still missing after a chunk of Italy’s Marmolada glacier broke off on Sunday, 3 July 2022, weakened by higher-than-normal temperatures that experts say are the direct result of human-caused climate change. The ice crashed into a group of more than a dozen hikers who were making their way across a popular trail on the Marmolada glacier, at more than 3 300 metres the highest mountain in the Italian Alps.
Helicopters and rescue dogs deployed
Late on Sunday evening, the Corps tweeted a phone number to call for family or friends in case of "failure to return from possible excursions” to the glacier.
Immediately after the avalanche, five rescue helicopters and dozens of Alpine search and rescue specialists, including rescue dogs, were deployed to help in the rescue operation. But the search had to be suspended at nightfall before resuming Monday morning.
"We saw dead (people) and enormous chunks of ice, rock and ‘‘exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state TV.
A spokeswoman for the rescue service described "an avalanche of snow, ice and rock that hit the access route as it passed by, with several roped parties being swept away". "The final number of climbers involved is not yet known," she added.
Footage filmed from a hut near the disaster shows snow and rock tumbling down the mountain with a loud crash. Other images taken by tourists on their mobile phones show the grey tongue of the avalanche sweeping away everything in its path, leaving no chance for the climbers.
In images transmitted by the Alpine rescue service, rescuers could be seen working near the scene of the disaster, not far from the departure point of the cable car leading to the top of the glacier. Helicopters flew over the area, ready to transport victims down the valley to the village of Canazei.
The rescuers' work was particularly difficult, as they had to extract the bodies from the ice and rock where they were lying.
The deadly natural disaster took place just one day after officials recorded a record-high temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) at the summit of the glacier in the Dolomite Mountains, a range in the eastern Italian Alps straddling the regions of Trento and Veneto.
Maurizio Fugatti, president of the Trento region, said that searches using drones would continue as a further three people, all Italian, remain unaccounted for.
Rescue coordinators hope to supplement the work of drones and helicopters by sending a team of experts and search dogs to the lower part of the site on Thursday, when the weather is forecast to be clearer.
A police team specialised in DNA analysis has also been drafted in to help with the identification process. Much of Italy has been baking in an early summer heatwave and scientists said climate change was making previously stable glaciers more unpredictable.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi came to the site of the accident, stating that "today Italy mourns these victims and all the Italians are brought together in affection".
Visibly emotional, he said that "this is a drama that certainly has unforeseen elements but certainly also depends on the deterioration of the environment and the climate situation. The government must reflect on what has happened and take measures so that what happened has a low probability of happening (again) and, indeed, will be averted. Now we must take measures so that what happened on the Marmolas does not happen again in Italy," Prime Minister Draghi said at the Dolomites resort town of Canazei.
The head of civil protection in Veneto Province, Gianpaolo Bottacin, was quoted by ANSA stressing that the situation was “evolving” and that seven people had died and there could be perhaps 15 people missing.
On Tuesday, 5 July 2022, authorities revised the figure to confirm that at least five were unaccounted for.
With the aid of drones, authorities then announced that two more bodies were spotted at the edge of tons of debris, taking the death toll to nine.
A crisis counselling unit was also activated to help the victims' relatives. The public prosecutor's office in Trento has opened an investigation to determine the causes of the tragedy.
'Queen of the Dolomites'
The Marmolada glacier, nicknamed the "Queen of the Dolomites", is the largest glacier in the northern Italian mountain range, which is part of the Alps. Situated in the Trentino region, it gives rise to the Avisio River and overlooks Lake Fedaia.
The glacier collapsed near Punta Rocca, along the route normally taken to reach its summit. It happened a day after the temperature at the top of the glacier reached a record high of 10 degrees Celsius.
People ski on the glacier in the winter but in recent years it has been rapidly melting away.
"The glacier destabilised at its base due to the large availability of melting water after weeks of extremely high and above average temperature," the Alpine-Adriatic Meteorological Society wrote on Twitter, also posting video of the ice avalanche.
But Walter Milan of the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps stressed that high heat was only one possible factor in Sunday's tragedy.
“There are so many factors that could be involved,'' Milan said. Avalanches in general aren't predictable, he said and heat's influence on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published on 1 March, identified melting ice and snow as one of the 10 major threats caused by global warming, disrupting ecosystems and threatening infrastructure.
Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research centre, which has a polar sciences institute, says the glacier won't exist anymore in the next 25 to 30 years and much of its volume is already gone.
The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot,” likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.
Sources: Euro News, The Smithsonian