Drones used in search after fatal Italian glacier avalanche

ROME (AP) — Drones flew over an Italian alpine mountainside Monday in search of more victims, a day after a huge chunk of a rapidly melting glacier broke off, triggering an avalanche of ice, snow and rock that crashed into hikers. At least six people were killed and an unknown number are missing.

Rescuers saw six bodies on Sunday and said nine injured survivors were found. Attention has turned to determining how many people might have been walking on Marmolada Peak and are missing. Sixteen cars were left unclaimed in the area parking lot.

Authorities were trying to track down the occupants through vehicle license plates. It was not clear how many of the cars might have belonged to the already identified victims or the injured, all of whom were airlifted to hospitals in northeastern Italy on Sunday.

After the search was temporarily halted on Sunday night, authorities said as many as 15 people may be missing, but stressed the situation was evolving.

Rescuers said conditions downhill from the glacier, which has been melting for decades, were still too unstable to immediately send teams of people and dogs to dig out tons of debris.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the head of the national Civil Protection agency were expected to go Monday to Canazei, a resort town in the Dolomites that has been serving as a base for rescuers.

Relatives were also expected to go to town to identify the bodies when rescuers were able to safely remove them from the mountain.

It was not immediately known what caused a pinnacle of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts to be about 300 kph (nearly 200 mph). But the heat wave that has hit Italy since May, bringing unusually high temperatures for early summer, even in the normally cooler Alps, was cited as a likely factor.

Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar sciences researcher at Italy’s state research center CNR, noted that the long heat wave, which lasted from May to June, was the hottest in northern Italy in that period for almost 20 years.

“It is absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state television on Monday. Like other experts, he said it would have been impossible to predict when or if a serac, a pinnacle of a glacier ledge, might break off, as it did on Sunday.

Alpine rescuers noted on Sunday that late last week, the temperature at the 3,300-meter (11,000-foot) peak had exceeded 10C (50F), much higher than usual. Operators of rustic lodges along the mountainside said temperatures at the 6,600-foot (2,000-meter) level recently reached 75 F (24 C), unheard of in a place where hikers go in the summer to refresh.

The glacier, in the Marmolada mountain range, is the largest of the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in winter. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent decades, and much of its volume has disappeared. Experts at Italy’s state research center CNR, which has an institute for polar sciences, estimated a couple of years ago that the glacier will cease to exist within 25 to 30 years.

The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries such as Italy, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, prone to heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.


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