Rome — A large chunk of an alpine glacier broke loose and roared down a mountainside in Italy on Sunday afternoon, sending ice, snow and rocks tumbling over hikers on a popular route to the summit and killing at least six people and injuring eight, officials said.
Around 10 people may be missing, civil defense official Gianpaolo Potacin was quoted as saying by the online edition of Italian daily Corriere della Sera. But Potasin later told state television that it was not yet possible to provide a firm number.
The glacier in the Marmolada mountain range is the largest of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy and is where people go skiing in the winter. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent years.
Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, which houses the Polar Science Institute, say the glacier won’t be around for the next 25-30 years and most of it is already gone. The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot”, which could lead to heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.
As of Sunday evening, officials were still working to determine how many climbers were in the area when the avalanche struck, said Walter Milan, a spokesman for the National Alpine Rescue Service, which provided death and injury numbers.
Rescue crews were checking license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people might be unaccounted for, a process that could take several hours, Milan told The Associated Press by phone.
“We saw dead (people) and massive ice, rocks,” exhausted rescuer Luigi Pelicetti told Italian state television.
The nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight people admitted to the hospital, two are in critical condition, officials said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar, audible for great distances,” local online media site ildolomiti.it reported.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Squad tweeted that at least five helicopters and rescues were involved in searching the affected area of Marmalade Peak. the dogs.
The search for more victims or missing people has been temporarily halted while rescuers assess the risk of the glacier breaking off, Walter Keinelli, who led the rescue with a search dog, told state television.
Rescue workers said the ice continued to slide. It started to rain lightly in the evening.
The SUEM dispatch service, based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people above the avalanche area would be evacuated by alpine rescuers.
But Milan said some people on the slopes are able to get down on their own by using the peak’s cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche involved “dumping of snow, ice and rocks”. The separated area is known as a serac or snow peak.
At 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), Marmalada is the highest peak in the Eastern Dolomites, offering spectacular views of other alpine peaks.
The Alpine Rescue Service said in a tweet that the area had broken off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point) “on the itinerary normally used to reach the summit”.
It was not immediately clear what caused the section of ice to break off and rush down the slope of the peak. But a severe heat wave in Italy since late June could be a factor.
“These days’ temperatures have clearly had an impact on the glacier’s partial collapse”, Maurizio Fugatti, head of Trento province, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan insisted that temperatures, which had risen above 10 C (50 F) unusually high at Marmolada’s peak in recent days, were a possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are many factors involved,” Milan said. Avalanches are generally unpredictable, and the effect of heat on the glacier is “still impossible to predict,” he said.
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called the recent temperatures “too hot” for the peak. “Clearly this is something unusual.”
According to rescue services, the injured were flown to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions.
“Friend of animals everywhere. Coffee maven. Professional food trailblazer. Twitter buff.”