A large piece of an Alpine glacier broke loose on Sunday afternoon and roared down a mountain slope in Italy, causing ice, snow and rock to hit hikers on a popular route and injuring at least six dead and eight injured. the authorities said.
About 10 people could be missing, said Gianpaolo Bottacin, a civil protection official, according to the online version of the Italian daily. Corriere della Sera. But Bottacin later told state television it was not yet possible to provide a fixed number.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite Mountains in northeastern Italy and people ski there in the winter. But the glacier has melted away rapidly over the past few years.
Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, which has a polar science institute, say the glacier will no longer exist in the next 25-30 years and most of its volume is already gone. The Mediterranean basin, which is shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, which is likely to suffer from heat waves and water shortages, among other things.
By Sunday night, officials were still determining how many hikers were in the area when the iceberg hit, said Walter Milan, a representative of the National Alps Rescue Corps that provided the death toll and injuries.
Rescue workers were checking license plates in the parking lot to determine how many people might not be held accountable, a process that could take hours, Milan told The Associated Press by telephone.
“We saw dead (people) and huge pieces of ice, rock,” exhausted rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state television.
Nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight hospitalized survivors, two were in serious condition, authorities said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar that could be heard from a great distance,” the local online media website ildolomiti.it said.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that the search for the Marmolada Peak area involved at least five helicopters and included rescue dogs.
The search for more victims or missing people has been temporarily halted while rescuers are evaluating the risk that more of the glacier could break down, Walter Cainelli told state television. The interview took place after he carried out a rescue mission with a search dog.
Rescue workers said blocks of ice continued to tumble down. Early in the evening a light rain began to fall.
The SUEM dispatch service, based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice hit would be evacuated by the Alpine Rescue Corps.
But Milan said some might come down the slope themselves, including by using the peak’s cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of a “fall of snow, ice and rock.” The detached part is known as a serac, or vertex of ice.
Marmolada, which towers about 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites, offering spectacular views of other Alpine peaks.
The Alps Rescue Service said in a tweet that the segment had broken off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the route normally used to reach the peak.”
It was not immediately clear what caused the section of ice to break away and slide down the slope of the peak. But the intense heatwave that has gripped Italy since the end of June could be a factor.
“The temperatures of these days have clearly had an impact” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of Trento province bordering Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan stressed that high heat, which has risen extraordinarily above 10 C (50 F) at Marmolada’s peak in recent days, was only one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that can be involved,” Milan said. Snowfall in general is not predictable, he said, and heat’s impact on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called the recent temperatures “extreme heat” for the peak. “It’s clearly something abnormal.”
The injured were flown to various hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to rescue services.