The Italian prime minister on Monday linked the collapse of the country’s largest Alpine glacier to climate change, as hopes faded to find even more survivors of a disaster that killed at least seven people.
Eight people were injured and another 14 were reported missing, authorities said, warning it was not clear how many climbers were caught when the glacier collapsed on Sunday.
According to Maurizio Fugatti, head of the province of Trento, ice and rock thundered down the Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Italian Dolomites, at 300 kilometers per hour.
Rescuers used thermal drones to seek warmth from potential survivors, though the odds of finding them were “down to nothing,” Giorgio Gajer, head of the region’s Alpine Rescue Service, told AGI news agency.
The bodies recovered so far were found “dismembered,” rescuer Gino Comelli said.
The disaster struck a day after a record high temperature of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded on top of the glacier, the largest in the Italian Alps.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi said it is “without doubt related to the deterioration of the environment and the climate situation”.
Alpine Rescue spokeswoman Michela Canova told AFP that an “avalanche of snow, ice and rocks” reached an access path at a time when several groups were roped, “some of which were swept away”.
– ‘Heard a roar’ –
She said the total number of climbers involved was “not yet known.”
The civil defense office said four cars were missing from the base camp: two Czech, one German and one Hungarian.
“I heard a roar, I turned to the left and saw a mass of ice coming down from the mountain,” ski instructor Luca Medici, 54, told AFP.
Bodies dug out of the ice and rocks were taken to Canazei village.
A physical search of the disaster site was impossible Monday due to fears the glacier could still be unstable and helicopters were only able to fly part of the time due to bad weather conditions.
“It is difficult for the rescuers in (such a) dangerous situation,” Canazei Mayor Giovanni Bernard told AFP.
Footage of the avalanche, filmed from a nearby refuge, shows snow and rocks rushing down the mountainsides.
“It’s a miracle that we’re still alive,” Stefano Dal Moro, an engineer who was hiking with his Israeli partner, told Corriere della Sera.
“It’s no use running. You can only pray it doesn’t come your way. We crouched down and hugged tightly as the ice passed.”
– Heat ‘out of normal’ –
Massimo Frezzotti, a science professor at Roma Tre University, told AFP the collapse was caused by unusually warm weather related to global warming. Last winter was very dry, with precipitation falling by 40 to 50 percent.
“The current condition of the glacier is something we would expect to see in mid-August, not early July,” he said.
Glacier specialist Renato Colucci told AGI that the phenomenon “will certainly repeat itself” as “temperatures at altitude in the Alps have been well above normal for weeks.”
The recent warm temperatures had generated a large amount of water from the melting glacier. It had accumulated at the bottom of the ice block and caused it to collapse, he added.
Pope Francis tweeted his prayers for the victims, saying that tragedies caused by climate change such as this “should prompt us to urgently seek new ways to respect people and nature”.
The Trento prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation to determine the causes of the tragedy.
UN scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in March that melting ice and snow was one of the top 10 threats posed by global warming, disrupting ecosystems and infrastructure.
Jonathan Bamber, director of the Glaciology Center at the University of Bristol, said the glacier’s decline is “making Europe’s high mountains an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable environment to be in”.