The collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps set off a massive avalanche which killed at least six people and injured eight on Sunday, an emergency services spokesperson told Italian media.
The glacier collapsed on the mountain of Marmolada, the highest in the Italian Dolomites, near the hamlet of Punta Rocca, on the route normally taken to reach its summit.
The disaster struck one day after a record-high temperature of 10°C was recorded at the glacier’s summit. Ice begins melting at temperatures above 0°C.
“An avalanche of snow, ice and rock hit an access path at a time when there were several roped parties, some of whom were swept away,“ emergency services spokeswoman Michela Canova said.
“The total number of climbers involved is not yet known,” said Canova.
She did not specify the nationalities of the victims, but Italian media reported that foreign nationals were among them. Helicopters were scrambled to take part in the rescue and to monitor the situation from the air.
Rescuers in the nearby Veneto region of north-east Italy said they had deployed all their Alpine teams, including sniffer dogs.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed his “sincerest condolences” to the victims and their families on Twitter. Further collapses are feared. Images filmed from a refuge close to the incident show snow and rock hurtling down the mountain’s slopes and causing a thunderous noise.
Other footage shot by tourists on their cellphones showed the greyish avalanche sweeping away everything in its path. The mountain rescue team released images showing rescuers and helicopters at the scene to take victims from the valley to the village of Canazei.
Their task was made harder because the bodies were trapped under a layer of ice and rock.
A team of psychologists was on hand to support relatives of the victims. Experts quoted by the “Corriere Della Sera Daily”, a local news outlet, said they feared further collapses of ice due to the ongoing heatwave.
Massimo Frezzotti, a science professor at Roma Tre University, said the collapse was caused by unusually warm weather linked to global warming, with precipitation down 40 to 50% during a dry winter.
“The current conditions of the glacier correspond to mid-August, not early July,” he said.
Glacier specialist Renato Colucci told the Italian agency AGI the phenomenon was “bound to repeat itself”, because “for weeks the temperatures at altitude in the Alps have been well beyond normal values”.
The recent warm temperatures had produced a large quantity of water from the melting glacier that accumulated at the bottom of the block of ice and caused it to collapse, he added.
The Marmolada glacier is the largest in the Dolomites mountain range, which is part of the Italian Alps and on the northern face of Marmolada.
The glacier, nicknamed “the queen of the Dolomites”, feeds the Avisio river and overlooks Lake Fedaia in the autonomous Italian province of Trento.
According to a report released in March this year by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), melting ice and snow is one of 10 major threats caused by global warming, disrupting ecosystems and damaging infrastructure.
The IPCC said glaciers in Scandinavia, central Europe and the Caucasus Mountains could lose between 60% and 80% of their mass by the end of the century.