ROME (AP) – A large chunk of an Alpine glacier broke loose on Sunday afternoon and thundered down a mountainside in Italy, with ice, snow and rock slamming into hikers on a popular hiking trail at the summit, killing at least six and injuring eight, authorities said.
About 10 people may be missing, civil defense officer Gianpaolo Bottacin was quoted as saying by the online version of Italian daily Corriere della Sera. But Bottacin later told state television that it was not yet possible to give a firm number.
The glacier in the Marmolada is the largest in the Dolomites of north-eastern Italy and skiing is practiced there in winter. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent years.
Experts from Italy’s state-run CNR research center, which has an institute for polar science, say the glacier will be gone in the next 25 to 30 years and most of its volume has already disappeared. The Mediterranean basin, 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.
As of Sunday night, officials were still working to determine how many hikers were in the area when the ice avalanche struck, said Walter Milan, a spokesman for the National Alpine Rescue Corps, who gave the death toll and injury toll.
Rescuers checked license plates in the parking lot as part of patrols to determine how many people may have gone undetected, a process that could take hours, Milan told The Associated Press over the phone.
“We saw dead people (people) and huge chunks of ice and boulders,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state television.
Nationalities or ages of the dead are not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight survivors hospitalized, two were in serious condition, authorities said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar that could be heard a great distance away,” local online media site ildolomiti.it said.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that at least five helicopters and rescue dogs were involved in the search in the affected area of the Marmolada peak.
The search for more victims or missing persons has been temporarily suspended while rescuers assess the risk that more glaciers could break off, Walter Cainelli told state television after a rescue operation with a search dog.
Rescuers said blocks of ice continued to fall. Light rain set in early in the evening.
The SUEM dispatch service, based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck were being evacuated by the Alpine Rescue Corps.
But Milan said some on the slope could potentially come down themselves, including via the summit’s cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “a downpour of snow, ice and rock.” The severed section is known as the Serac or Ice Peaks.
At around 3,300 meters, the Marmolada is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites and offers spectacular views of other Alpine peaks.
The Alpine Rescue Service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the route normally used to reach the summit.”
It was not immediately clear what caused the section of ice to detach and fall down the slope of the summit. But the intense heatwave sweeping Italy since late 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 the province of Trento, which borders the Marmolada, told Sky TG24 News.
However, Milan stressed that the high heat, which has unusually soared above 10C (50F) on the Marmolada summit in recent days, was just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that could play a role,” said Milan. Avalanches in general are unpredictable, he said, and the impact of heat on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called recent temperatures “extreme heat” for the peak. “It’s definitely something abnormal.”
According to the rescue services, the injured were flown to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions.
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