Glacier Collapse Kills Seven Hikers Amid Record Heat in Italy’s Dolomites

Rescuers are still searching for missing people after the deadly avalanche on Marmolada on Sunday

Helicopter above glacier
Helicopters fly above the collapsed section of the Marmolada glacier in Italy. Photo by Jan Hetfleisch / Getty Images

At least seven people are dead and more are still missing after a chunk of Italy’s Marmolada glacier broke off on Sunday, weakened by higher-than-normal temperatures that experts say are the direct result of human-caused climate change.

The deadly natural disaster took place just one day after officials recorded a record-high temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) at the summit of the glacier in the Dolomite Mountains, report Bloomberg’s Sonia Sirletti and Chiara Albanese.

“High elevation glaciers, such as the Marmolada, are often steep and relying on cold temperatures below zero degrees Celsius to keep them stable,” Poul Christoffersen, a glaciologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Bloomberg. “But climate change means more and more meltwater.”

Marmolada is the highest peak in the Dolomites, towering 10,968 feet above sea level; it’s also a popular hiking and climbing destination. Officials believe at least 26 people were caught in the avalanche that occurred around 1:30 p.m. local time on Sunday after a 200-yard-section of the glacier collapsed and brought a destructive stream of ice, rock and debris tumbling down the mountainside with it.

Marmolada glacier
The Marmolada glacier in Italy's Dolomite Mountains Photo by Jan Hetfleisch / Getty Images

Bad weather and unstable conditions on the mountain have been hampering rescue and recovery efforts so far, but emergency responders discovered body parts and hiking gear during initial surveys that led them to believe at least seven people died in the avalanche. They also initially believed that 13 hikers were still unaccounted for, but later lowered that number to five, report Paolo Santalucia, Andrea Rosa and Nicole Winfield for the Associated Press (AP).

One of the hikers who is still missing is Erica Campagnaro, who was recreating with her husband, an experienced alpine guide. Campagnaro’s sister, Debora Campagnaro, told the AP that she was frustrated by the lack of an alert system to warn mountaineers about the danger of the melting glacier.

“Is there an authority that had to prevent people (from going up the mountain) given the weather of that day and the weather of the previous days? Where is this authority?” she said.

Parts of Europe, including Italy, have been experiencing a heat wave in recent days. The high temperatures come as northern Italy also grapples with its worst drought in 70 years, caused in part by a lack of snow in the mountains over the winter. Water levels are so low in the Po River valley, where farmers and ranchers grow some 40 percent of Italy’s food, that a World War II-era barge and other historic artifacts are starting to emerge from the river. Italy has declared a state of emergency for five northern regions along the Po River.

The glacier is closed to tourists while rescuers continue their search efforts, report Guglielmo Mangiapane and Roberto Mignucci for Reuters. But officials were not optimistic that they would find any of the missing hikers alive.

If climate change continues, the Marmolada glacier could melt completely within the next 25 to 30 years, according to Italy’s state-run Council for National Research (CNR). The glacier lost 30 percent of its volume and 22 percent of its area between 2004 and 2015, per the CNR.

And though local officials described the glacial avalanche as an unusual, one-off event, climate experts cautioned that these types of disasters could become more common as the planet continues to warm.

“The fact that it happened in a scorching summer with abnormal temperatures must be a wake-up call to understand that these phenomena, while rare, are possible,” Nicola Casagli, a geologist at the University of Florence, told journalists at the scene of the avalanche, as reported by the AP. “If we don’t take decisive measures to counter the effects of climate change, they will become more and more frequent.”