ROME – A large stretch of an Alpine glacier broke loose on Sunday and roared off a mountain in Italy, causing ice, snow and rocks to hit hikers on a popular summit trail, killing at least six and injuring nine, authorities said. warning that the toll could rise.
A local civil defense official, Gianpaolo Bottacin, was quoted by Italy’s ANSA news agency as paying the toll, but stressed that the situation was “evolving” and that perhaps 15 people would be missing.
Late in the evening, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted a phone number to call family or friends in the event of “not returning from possible excursions” to the glacier.
Rescuers checked license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people could be missing, a process that could take hours, police spokesman Walter Milan told The Associated Press by phone.
The glacier, in the Marmolada Mountains, is the largest in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy and people ski there in winter. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent years.
Experts at the state-run CNR Research Center in Italy, which has an institute of polar sciences, say the glacier will be gone in the next 25-30 years and much of its volume has already disappeared.
Shared by Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the Mediterranean Basin has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, which will suffer from heatwaves and water shortages, among other things.
“We saw dead (people) and huge chunks of ice, rock,” exhausted rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state TV.
Nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said.
Of the 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,” local online media site ildolomiti.it said.
The search by helicopter and dogs for any more victims or missing persons was temporarily halted for the night while rescuers assessed the risk that more of the glacier could break off, Walter Cainelli told state TV after conducting a rescue mission with a sniffer dog.
Rescuers said more and more ice blocks were falling. Early in the evening it started to rain lightly.
The SUEM dispatch service, which is 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.
Some of those who made the trip in the area the avalanche swept through were tied together with ropes, according to local emergency services.
But Milan said some hikers may be able to get down on their own, including using the peak’s funicular.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “crashed snow, ice and rock.” The freestanding portion is known as a serac, or the pinnacle of ice.
Also called the “Queen of the Dolomites”, the Marmolada rises about 11,000 feet and is the highest of the 18 peaks in that eastern part of the Italian Alps, offering 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 chunk of ice to break loose and descend the slope of the summit. But the intense heat wave that has gripped Italy since late June loomed as a possible factor.
“The temperatures of these days clearly influenced” the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan stressed that the high heat, which has risen unusually above 50 F at the Marmolada peak in recent days, was just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that can come into play,” Milan said. Avalanches in general are not predictable, he said, and the effect of heat on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called the recent temperatures “extreme heat” before the peak. “It’s clearly something abnormal.”
The injured were flown to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to rescue services.
As in other cases of natural disasters in Italy, prosecutors opened an investigation to see if there was evidence of possible misconduct in connection with the avalanche.