Storms hamper search for missing after glacier avalanche in Italy


Thunderstorms have hampered the search for more than a dozen hikers who remain missing for a day after a huge chunk of an alpine glacier in Italy broke off, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rocks on the slope.

Italian public television said another body had been found, bringing the known death toll to seven.

Nine other people were injured when the avalanche erupted from the Marmolada Glacier on Sunday afternoon as dozens of hikers were out hiking, some of them roped up.

Trento prosecutor Sandro Raimondi said 17 hikers were initially missing, Italian news agency LaPresse reported. But later, state television RAI reported from the scene that the number of missing people had dropped to 15 after authorities were able to locate some of those missing.

Much of the glacier has broken away (Autonomous Province of Trento via AP)

At least four bodies, brought to a makeshift morgue at an ice rink in Canazei, a seaside resort in the Dolomites, had been identified on Monday afternoon.

RAI said three of those identified were Italians, including an experienced alpine guide who was leading a group of hikers. Another was a hiker whose relatives said he had just sent a selfie of himself from the slope shortly before the avalanche.

One of the dead was from the Czech Republic, RAI said.

According to the media, the missing persons are Italians, three Romanians, one of French nationality, another from Austria and four from the Czech Republic.

Veneto regional governor Luca Zaia said some of those hiking in the region on Sunday were roped together during their ascent.

Mr. Raimondi reportedly said that two of the injured were Germans. Mr Zaia told reporters that one of the Germans was a 65-year-old man.

rescue helicopter
The glacier has been melting for decades (Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico via AP)

Survivors in the hospital suffered chest and skull injuries, Zaia said.

Drones were used to help search for the missing.

Sixteen vehicles remained unclaimed in the area’s parking lot and authorities sought to trace the occupants through license plates.

It is unclear how many cars may have belonged to the already identified victims or the injured, all of whom were airlifted by helicopter to hospitals on Sunday.

Rescuers said conditions below the glacier, which has been melting for decades, were still too unstable to send teams of people and dogs back to dig through tons of debris.

The storm forced the helicopter flying Prime Minister Mario Draghi to the disaster area to be rerouted.

The ice cream parlor in Italy
Officials said conditions were still too unstable to immediately send rescuers and dogs to the area (Autonomous Province of Trento via AP)

What caused a top of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed experts estimated at nearly 200 mph was not immediately known.

But the heat wave that has gripped Italy since May, bringing unusually high temperatures for the start of summer, even in the normally cooler Alps, has been cited as a likely factor.

Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar scientist at the Italian research center CNR, noted that the long heat wave, which runs from May to June, was the hottest in northern Italy during this period for nearly 20 years old.

“It’s absolutely an anomaly,” Mr Gabrieli said in an interview with Italian public television.

Like other experts, he said it would have been impossible to predict when or if a serac – a summit of the overhang of a glacier – might rupture, as it did on Sunday.

Alpine rescuers noted on Sunday that at the end of last week the temperature on the 3,300-metre summit had exceeded 10°C (50°F), much higher than usual.

The glacier near Trento before a large chunk broke off
The glacier near Trento before a large chunk broke off (Cristian Ferrari/ Commissione Glaciologica Societa Alpinisti Tridentini via AP)

Operators of rustic mountainside shelters said temperatures at the 2,000-metre level had recently hit 24C (75F), unprecedented heat in a place where visitors go in the summer to cool off .

The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest of the Dolomite mountains in northeast Italy. People ski on it in winter.

But the glacier has rapidly melted in recent decades, with much of its volume gone.

Experts from the Italian research center CNR, which has a polar science institute, estimated a few years ago that the glacier would no longer exist within 25 to 30 years.

The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries such as Italy, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, likely to suffer, among other consequences, waves of heat and water shortages.

Pope Francis, who has made the planet a priority of his papacy, tweeted an invitation to pray for avalanche victims and their families.

“The tragedies we are experiencing with climate change must push us to urgently seek new ways that respect people and nature,” Francis wrote.


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