Rome – A large glacier in the Alps broke off Sunday afternoon and slid down a mountainside in Italy, sending ice, snow and rocks crashing into hikers on a popular trail to the summit, killing at least six and injuring eight, authorities said.
The online edition of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera quoted Civil Protection official Gian Paolo Bottasin that there may be about 10 missing. But Pottasin later told state television that it was not yet possible to provide a firm figure.
The glacier, in the Marmolada Range, is the largest in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy and people ski there in the winter. But the glacier has begun to melt rapidly in recent years.
Experts at the state-run CNR Research Center in Italy, which includes an institute of polar sciences, say the glacier will no longer exist in the next 25-30 years and that most of its volume has already disappeared. United Nations experts have identified the Mediterranean Basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, as a “climate change hotspot”, likely to suffer from heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.
By Sunday evening, officials were still working to determine how many hikers were in the area when the avalanche struck, said Walter Millan, a spokesman for the National Alpine Rescue Corps who provided the death and injury toll.
Rescuers were checking license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people might be missing, a process that could take hours, Milan told The Associated Press by phone.
“We saw (people) dead and huge blocks of ice and rocks,” lifeguard Luigi Felicity told Italian state television.
Milan said the nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available. Authorities said two of the eight survivors who were taken to hospital are in serious condition.
The local media website ildolomiti.it said the fast-moving avalanche “came down audibly from a distance.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Squad tweeted that the search in the respective area of the Marmolada Peak included at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.
Walter Cainelli, after conducting a rescue mission with a search dog, told state television that the search for any victims or missing people had been paused while rescuers assessed the risk of further glacier collapse.
Rescue workers said the ice was still falling. Early in the evening, a light rain began.
The SUEM Dispatch Service, based in the nearby region of Veneto, said the Alpine Rescue Corps will evacuate 18 people who were above the ice-hit area.
But Milan said some on the slope may be able to go down on their own, including by using the cable car at the summit.
Swim said the avalanche consisted of “falling snow, ice and rocks.” The separate section is known as a circus or ice top.
Marmolada, at about 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites, and offers stunning views of other Alpine peaks.
The Alpine Rescue Service said in a tweet on Twitter that the clip was cut off near Punta Roca (Rock Point), “along the itinerary that is normally used to reach the peak.”
It was not immediately clear why the ice fragment separated and erupted down the slope of the summit. But the intense heat wave that has been sweeping Italy since late June may be one factor.
“It is clear that the temperatures these days have had an effect” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fogatti, chief of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told SkyTG24 news network.
But Milan stressed that the sweltering heat, which soared unusually above 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) at the Marmolada peak in recent days, was just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are many factors that could be involved,” Milan said, saying that avalanches are generally unpredictable, and the effect of heat on a glacier is “impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan described the recent temperatures as “extremely hot” relative to the peak. “It is clearly an abnormal thing.”
Rescue services said the wounded were airlifted to several hospitals in the Trentino Alto Adige and Veneto regions.