Drones flew over a mountainside in the Italian Alps on Monday seeking to spot any more victims, a day after a huge chunk of a rapidly melting glacier broke loose, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rocks slamming into hikers. At least six people were killed and an indeterminate number are missing.
Rescuers on Sunday spotted six bodies and said nine injured survivors were found. Attention was focused on determining how many people might have been hiking on the Marmolada peak and are unaccounted for. Sixteen cars remained unclaimed in the area’s parking lot.
Authorities were trying to track down occupants through vehicle licence plates. It was unclear how many of the cars might have belonged to the already identified victims or to the injured, all of whom were flown by helicopters on Sunday to hospitals in northeastern Italy.
After the search was temporarily halted on Sunday night, officials said about 15 people could be missing, but stressed the situation was evolving.
Slope too unstable for rescuers
Rescuers said conditions downslope from the glacier, which has been melting for decades, were still too unstable to immediately send teams of people and dogs to dig into tonnes of debris.
Premier Mario Draghi and the head of the national Civil Protection agency were expected to go on Monday to Canazei, a tourist town in the Dolomite range that has been serving as a base for rescuers.
Relatives were also expected to go to the town to identify bodies when rescuers can safely remove them from the mountain.
What caused a pinnacle of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts at some 300 km/h wasn’t immediately known. But the heat wave gripping Italy since May, bringing temperatures unusually high for the start of summer even up in the normally cooler Alps, was being cited as a likely factor.
Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar sciences researcher at Italy’s state-run CNR research centre, noted that the long heat wave, spanning May and June, was the hottest in northern Italy in that period for nearly 20 years.
“It’s absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state TV on Monday. Like other experts, he said it would have been impossible to predict when or if a serac — a pinnacle from a glacier’s overhang — could break off, as it did on Sunday.
Alpine rescuers on Sunday noted that late last week, the temperature on the 3,300-metre-high peak had topped 10 C, far higher than usual. Operators of rustic shelters along the mountainside said temperatures at the 2,000-metre level recently reached 24 C, unheard-of heat in a place where excursionists go in summer to keep cool.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in the winter. But the glacier has been rapidly melting away over the past decades, with much of its volume gone. Experts the CNR research centre, which has a polar sciences institute, estimated a couple of years ago that the glacier won’t exist anymore within 25 to 30 years.
The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries like Italy, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot,” likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.