Rain hampers search for missing in Italy’s glacial avalanche

ROME (AP) — Thunderstorms Monday hampered a day-long search for a dozen hikers who were unaccounted for after a large chunk of an Alpine glacier broke off in Italy, sending an avalanche of snow, ice and rock down the slope. Italy’s state television said another body had been recovered, raising the known death toll to seven.

Nine more people were injured when an avalanche unleashed dozens of hikers on excursions from the Marmalade Glacier on Sunday afternoon, some of them roped together.

Trento prosecutor Sandro Raimondi said 17 hikers were initially believed to be missing, Italian news agency LaPresse reported. But later, RAI state TV reported that the number of unaccounted for had dropped to 15 after authorities were able to locate some of those feared missing.

The detached ice sheet was estimated to be 200 meters (yards) wide, 80 meters high and 60 meters deep. Governor Luca Zaia, whose Veneto region borders the Marmolada region in northeastern Italy, likened the avalanche to “”a block of apartment building (size) debris and cyclopean rocks.

“I can’t say anything but the facts, and the facts tell us that higher temperatures are not conducive to these conditions,” Jaya told reporters.

Italy is in the grip of a week-long heat wave, and alpine rescuers said last week temperatures reached 10 C (50 F) at the top of the glacier, which is usually freezing at this time of year.

An ice rink in the Dolomite mountain resort town of Ganassi served as a makeshift morgue to identify the dead, a task that was both challenging and gruesome as in some cases body parts were scattered over a wide area, rescuers said.

At least four bodies brought to the ice rink were identified on Monday afternoon.

Three Italians were among those identified, RAI said, including an experienced alpine guide. Another was a climber whose relatives said he sent a selfie from the slope just before the avalanche came down.

RAI reported that one of the dead was from Czechia.

According to media reports, the missing are believed to be several Italians, three Romanians, one with French citizenship, another from Austria and four from the Czech Republic.

Raimondi cited that two of the wounded were Germans. One of the Germans was a 65-year-old man, Jaya told reporters. The patients were so badly injured that they could not yet be identified.

Drones were used to search for missing people and check security.

Sixteen cars were unclaimed in the lot’s parking lot, and officers tried to trace the occupants by license plates. It was unclear how many of the cars belonged to already identified victims or injured people, all of whom were airlifted to hospitals on Sunday.

It was not immediately clear what caused the glacier’s peak to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts at about 300 km (nearly 200 mph).

But high temperatures were widely cited as a possible factor.

Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar science researcher at Italy’s state-run CNR research center, noted that the long heat wave in May and June was the hottest in northern Italy for nearly 20 years.

“It’s absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview with Italian state television on Monday. Like other experts, he said it’s impossible to predict when or if a peak will break off from the top of a glacier, as it did Sunday.

The temperature at the 2,000-meter (6,600-foot) level recently reached 24C (75 F), according to operators of primitive lodges on the hillsides — unheard of in a place where summer hikers find it chilly.

A glacier in the Marmolada mountain range, the largest of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in winter. But the glacier has been melting so rapidly over the past decades that it has lost much of its volume. Experts from Italy’s state-run CNR research center, which houses the Polar Science Institute, estimated a few years ago that the glacier would disappear within 25-30 years.

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

Pope Francis, who has made caring for the planet a priority in his papacy, tweeted to pray for the victims of the avalanche and their families. “The tragedies we are experiencing due to climate change should prompt us to urgently seek new ways of respecting people and nature,” Francis wrote.

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