A large section of ice broke off an Alpine glacier in Northeastern Italy’s Dolomite mountains triggering an avalanche of rock, snow, and ice. Rescuers rushed to the Marmolada glacier by helicopter to search for surviving hikers. Officials report seven known casualties and nine people injured.
Initially, 17 hikers were unaccounted for, but that number dropped to an estimated 13 hikers who remain missing: “Their failure to return [was] reported by family members,” according to a Facebook post by the Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleological (CNSAS), aka the National Alpine Cliff and Cave Rescue Corps.
“The crack in the glacier is directly related to climate change,” Renato R. Colucci, PhD., a scientist at the Institute of Polar Science, said during an interview with Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s daily newspaper. Climatologists believe the largest Marmolada glacier in Northeastern Italy’s Dolomites will likely disappear in 20 to 30 years if the current climate trends persist. They base this theory on the glacier’s loss of volume and area between 2004 and 2015; 30% and 22%, respectively.
“We are…in the worst conditions for a detachment of this kind when there’s so much heat and so much running water at the base. We aren’t yet able to understand if it was a deep or superficial detachment, but the size of it seems very big judging from the preliminary images and information received,” Dr. Colucci added.
The Italian Alps are in the middle of an early summer heatwave; the region suffers the worst drought in 70 years. In addition, climatologists say that the glaciers do not have the protective blanket necessary to prevent melting due to decreased snowfall during the winter. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts, explained:
Bare glaciers melt faster because the lack of snow cover exposes ice that is darker and typically plastered with dirt, dust, and debris that absorbs more heat. When glaciers lose their snowpack, they’re much more vulnerable.
Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, visited the rescue base in Canazei on Monday. He acknowledged avalanches are unpredictable, and their devastation is proportionate to the amount of deterioration caused by the climate crisis.
Weather Affects Search and Rescue for Avalanche Victims
When the avalanche swept down the mountainside on Sunday, July 3, 2022, its deadly force was captured on video. “Several hikers were killed immediately in the rush of ice, rock, and debris that moved with ferocious speed,” reports NPR.
Higher-than-average temperatures and rain have complicated the search these past three days. CNSAS teams suspended their search on Sunday due to the dangers associated with hot temperatures.
On Monday, thunderstorms hampered rescue crews. The conditions were too dangerous for National Alpine Cliff and Cave Rescue Corps members and dogs to resume searching for those missing or to bring down bodies.
“Rescuers said conditions downslope from the glacier were still too unstable to send back teams of people and dogs to dig into tons of debris,” according to NBC News.
Rescuers resumed their search for avalanche victims using helicopters and drones on Tuesday.
According to NPR, Matteo Gasperini told Sky TG24 News they hope to complete the work of monitoring the entire avalanche site to find survivors.
An Alpine Rescue Corps member, Luigi Felicetti, told state-owned Radiotelevisione Italian (TRI):
It was a crazy scene where the bodies were found because there were blocks of ice and enormous rocks everywhere as we started to look for people.
The CNSAS Facebook page indicates that until the situation is resolved, “access to the Marmolada mountain range is forbidden.”
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
NPR: Rescuers in Italy are looking for missing mountain climbers after an avalanche; by Adam Raney
NPR: Rescuers are using drones to help search for avalanche survivors in Italy
WFSU Public Media: Alpine avalanche in Italy leaves 7 known dead
NBC News: Chunk of alpine glacier detaches in Italy, killing at least 6 hikers, injuring 9
USA Today: At least 15 hikers missing, 7 dead after Alpine glacier avalanche in Italy
Nature: The loss of the world’s frozen places; by Alexandra Witze
NASA Earth Observatory: Losing a Layer of Protection; by Adam Voiland
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Kordula Vahle’s Pixabay Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image by Rupertsciamenna Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Maureen Barlin’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License