CANAZEI, Italy — Rescuers were to resume the search for survivors on Monday after an avalanche set off by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps killed at least six people and injured eight others.
Authorities said they did not know “the total number of climbers” hit when the glacier collapsed Sunday on Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Italian Dolomites.
A local Civil Protection official, Gianpaolo Bottacin, was quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA as providing the death toll, but stressing that the situation was “evolving” and that there could be perhaps 15 people missing.
In late evening, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted a phone number to call for family or friends in case of “failure to return from possible excursions” to the glacier.
Rescuers 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 hours, Corps spokesman Walter Milan said.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy and people ski there in the winter.
But the glacier has been rapidly melting away in recent years.
The disaster struck one day after a record-high temperature of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded at the glacier’s summit.
Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, which has a polar sciences institute, say the glacier won’t exist anymore in the next 25-30 years and much of its volume is already gone.
The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot,” likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.
Massimo Frezzotti, a science professor at Roma Tre University, said the collapse was caused by unusually warm weather linked to global warming, with precipitation down 40-50 percent during a dry winter.
“The current conditions of the glacier correspond to mid-August, not early July,” he said.
“An avalanche of snow, ice and rock hit an access path at a time when there were several roped parties, some of whom were swept away,” emergency services spokeswoman Michela Canova said.
Two of the injured were taken to hospital in Belluno, another in a more serious condition was taken to Treviso and five to Trento.
Canova did not specify the nationalities of the victims, but Italian media reported that foreign nationals were among them.
Several helicopters were scrambled to take part in the initial rescue operation but the search for survivors had to be suspended at nightfall and resumed early Monday.
Rescuers in the nearby Veneto region of northeast Italy said they had deployed all their Alpine teams, including sniffer dogs.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed his “sincerest condolences” to the victims and their families on Twitter.
Further collapses feared
Images filmed from a refuge close to the incident show snow and rock hurtling down the mountain’s slopes and causing a thunderous noise.
Other footage shot by tourists on their mobile phones showed the greyish avalanche sweep away everything in its path.
The collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps has killed at least six people and injured eight others.
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) July 4, 2022
The mountain rescue team released images showing rescuers and helicopters at the scene to take victims from the valley to the village of Canazei.
Their task was made harder because the bodies were trapped under a layer of ice and rock.
Experts quoted by the Corriere della Sera daily said they feared further collapses of ice.
Glacier specialist Renato Colucci told the Italian agency AGI that the phenomenon was “bound to repeat itself,” because “for weeks the temperatures at altitude in the Alps have been well beyond normal values.”
The recent warm temperatures had produced a large quantity of water from the melting glacier that accumulated at the bottom of the block of ice and caused it to collapse, he added.
According to a March report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), melting ice and snow is one of 10 major threats caused by global warming, disrupting ecosystems and infrastructure.
The IPCC has said glaciers in Scandinavia, central Europe and the Caucasus could lose between 60 and 80 percent of their mass by the end of the century.
The traditional way of life of people such as the Sami in Finland’s Lapland, who raise reindeer, has already been affected.
Thawing permafrost is also hampering economic activity in Canada and Russia.