Rome – A large chunk of alpine glacier broke off Sunday afternoon and slid down a mountainside in Italy, sending ice, snow and rocks slamming at hikers on a popular summit trail, killing at least six people and injuring eight, authorities said.
There could be around 10 people missing, civil protection official Gianpaolo Bottacin was quoted by the online version of Italian daily Corriere della Sera as saying. But Bottacin later told state television it was not yet possible to provide a firm figure.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest of the Dolomite mountains in northeast Italy and people ski there in winter. But the glacier has rapidly melted in recent years.
Experts from the Italian research center CNR, which has a polar science institute, say the glacier will no longer exist in the next 25 to 30 years and that most of its volume has already disappeared. The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, likely to suffer, among other consequences, heat waves and water shortages.
On Sunday evening, officials were still working to determine the number of hikers in the area when the ice avalanche hit, said Walter Milan, spokesman for the National Alpine Rescue Corps which provided the death and injured 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 dead people (people) and huge pieces of ice, rock,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian public television.
Nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight survivors hospitalized, 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.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that the search for the affected area of Marmolada Peak involved at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.
The search for other victims or missing has been temporarily halted while rescuers assess the risk of more of the glacier breaking away, Walter Cainelli said, after leading a rescue mission with a search dog, to state television.
Rescuers said blocks of ice continued to fall. At the beginning of the evening, a light rain began to fall.
The SUEM expedition service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck would be evacuated by the Alpine Rescue Corps.
But Milan said some on the slope may be able to descend on their own, including using the summit cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “a dumping of snow, ice and rock”. The detached section is known as the ice serac or pinnacle.
La Marmolada, rising to around 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), 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 segment came to an end near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the route normally used to reach the summit”.
The cause of the ice section breaking off and falling down the slope of the peak was not immediately clear. But the intense heat wave that has hit Italy since late June could be a factor.
“The temperatures of those days clearly had an influence” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, president of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan pointed to the high heat, which soared unusually above 10 C (50 F) at the top of Marmolada in recent days, as just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that could be involved,” Milan said. Avalanches in general are unpredictable, he said, and the influence of heat on a glacier “is even more unpredictable.”
In separate comments on Italian public television, Milan called recent temperatures “extremely hot” for the peak. “Obviously, it’s something abnormal.”
The injured were airlifted to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to the emergency services.