Rome – A large chunk of an Alpine glacier broke off on Sunday and crept onto a mountain in Italy, sending ice, snow and rocks crashing into hikers on a popular path to the summit, killing at least six and injuring nine, authorities said, warning that losses could climb up.
The Italian news agency ANSA quoted a local civil protection official, Gian Paolo Bottasin, as saying the number, but stressing that the situation was “evolving” and that there might be 15 people missing.
Late in the evening, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Team tweeted a phone number to call family or friends in case they “not return from potential excursions” to the glacier.
Rescuers were checking license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people may be missing, a process that could take hours, Corps spokesman Walter Millan told The Associated Press by phone.
The glacier, in the Marmolada Range, is the largest in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy and people ski there in the winter. But the glacier has begun to melt rapidly in recent years.
Experts at the state-run CNR Research Center in Italy, which includes an institute of polar sciences, say the glacier will not exist anymore in the next 25 to 30 years, and much of its size has already disappeared.
United Nations experts have identified the Mediterranean basin, which is shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, as a “climate change hotspot”, likely to suffer from heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.
“We saw (people) dead and huge blocks of ice and rocks,” Luigi Felicity, the exhausted rescuer, told Italian state television.
Milan said the nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available.
Authorities said two survivors were in hospital in serious condition.
The local media website ildolomiti.it said the fast-moving avalanche “descended with a roar that can be heard from a distance”.
Temporarily, search by helicopter and dogAfter conducting a rescue mission with a search dog, Walter Cainelli told state television that the rescue of more victims or missing people was halted overnight while rescuers assessed the risk of further glacier collapse.
Rescue workers said the ice was still falling. Early in the evening, a light rain began.
The SUEM Dispatch Service, based in the nearby region of Veneto, said the Alpine Rescue Corps will evacuate 18 people who were above the ice-hit area.
According to local emergency services, some of those who made the trip in the area where the avalanche broke out were held together by ropes.
But Milan said some hikers may be able to go down on their own, including by using the cable car to the summit.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “falling snow, ice and rocks.” The separate section is known as a circus or ice top.
Dubbed the “Queen of the Dolomites,” Marmolada rises around 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet) and is the highest of the 18 peaks in that eastern range of the Italian Alps, offering stunning views of other Alpine peaks.
The Alpine Rescue Service said in a tweet that the clip was cut off near Punta Roca (Rock Point), “along the itinerary that is normally used to reach the peak.”
It was not immediately clear why the ice fragment separated and erupted down the slope of the summit. But the intense heat wave that has been sweeping Italy since late June is looming as a possible factor.
“It is clear that the temperatures these days have had an effect” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fogatti, chief of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told SkyTG24 news network.
But Milan stressed that high temperatures, which soared unusually above 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) at the Marmolada peak in recent days, were just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are a lot of factors that could be involved,” Milan said. He said avalanches are generally unpredictable, and the effect of heat on a glacier is “impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan described recent temperatures as “extremely hot” for the peak. “It is clearly an abnormal thing.”
Rescue services said the wounded were airlifted to several hospitals in the Trentino Alto Adige and Veneto regions.
As in other natural disasters in Italy, prosecutors have opened an investigation to see if there is any indication of wrongdoing linked to the avalanche.