World

Storms slow search for missing hikers after Italy glacier collapse that killed at least 7

Thunderstorms hampered the search for more than a dozen hikers who remained unaccounted for on Monday, a day after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in Italy broke off, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rocks down the slope.

Drones used in search grounded after severe storms lashed the area

Rescuers get ready for search operations on Monday after the glacier on the mountain of Marmolada, the highest in the Dolomites, collapsed the day before, just days after a record-high temperature of 10 C was recorded at the glacier's summit. (Pierre Teyssot/AFP/Getty Images)

Thunderstorms hampered Monday the search for more than a dozen hikers who remained unaccounted for a day after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in Italy broke off, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rocks down the slope. Officials have now put the death toll at seven.

"I hope the numbers stop here," said Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia, whose region in northeast Italy borders the Dolomite mountain range including the Marmolada glacier. He spoke in the resort town of Canazei, where a morgue was set up in the ice rink.

Drones were being used to help look for any of the missing as well as to verify safety, but even they had to stop operating when thunderstorms lashed the area in late morning.

Another regional leader, Maurizio Fugatti, said that by Monday afternoon 14 persons remained unaccounted for: 10 Italians, one from Austria and three from Czechia, more commonly known in English as the Czech Republic. "We were contacted by families because these people didn't return home,"' said Fugatti of the Trentino-Alto Adige Alpine region.

In the mountain's parking lot, four cars remained whose occupants hadn't been traced — two cars had plates from Czech Republic, one from Germany and the fourth from Hungary.

At least 3 of the dead from Italy

Fugatti raised the possibility that there might be families who don't know the status of their relatives since they might be on holiday and only check in at vacation's end.

At least three of the dead were Italians, authorities said.

One of the Italians was Filippo Bari, 28, who snapped a selfie with the Marmolada glacier in the background only minutes before the avalanche, according to his brother, Andrea, who told state TV in Canazei where he came to identify the body.

Although an expert mountain hiker, his brother said his family always told him to be careful in the mountains, "above all in these temperatures." He said the selfie was sent only 20 minutes before the avalanche and that his brother, who had a partner and a 4-year-old son, was smiling. "He passed away doing what he loved."

Italian news reports said one of the deceased was from Czech Republic.

This view taken Monday shows the glacier that collapsed the day before. (Pierre Teyssot/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, officials said nine persons were injured, but officials at a news conference Monday in the resort town of Canazei said there were eight persons, including two hospitalized in what they described as "delicate," grave condition.

Zaia said the hospitalized included two Germans and a 40-year-old patient yet to be identified.

The avalanche came roaring down when dozens of hikers were on excursions, including some who were roped together.

Premier demands action to avoid repeat

Italian Premier Mario Draghi, flanking the officials after meeting with family members of some of the dead, expressed "the most sincere, affectionate, heartfelt closeness" to the families.

Looking grim, Draghi demanded that action be taken so such a tragedy doesn't happen again. "This is a drama that certainly has some unpredictability," he said, echoing several experts who said an avalanche triggered by a glacier's breakup couldn't be forecast.

But what happened "'certainly depends on environmental deterioration and the climate situation," the premier said.

Marmolada glacier has been shrinking for decades, and scientists at the government CNR research centre have said it won't exist within 25 to 30 years.

"Today, Italy gathers close" around the stricken families, Draghi said. "The government must reflect on what happened and take measures, so that what happens has a very low possibility, or none, of repeating itself."

The detached portion of glacier was massive, estimated at 200 metres wide and 80 metres tall. Zaia likened
the avalanche to an "apartment building [sized] block of ice with debris and Cyclopean masses of rock."

"I can't say anything else other than the facts, and the facts tell us that the high temperatures don't favour these situations," Zaia told reporters.

Weeks-long heat wave

Italy is in the grips of a weeks-long heat wave, and Alpine rescuers said that the temperature at the glacier's altitude last
week topped 10 C when usually it should hover around freezing at this time of year.

What caused a pinnacle of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts at around 300 km/h wasn't immediately known.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi, centre, attends a news conference in Canazei, Italy, on Monday. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

But high temperatures were widely cited as a likely factor.

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

"It's absolutely an anomaly," Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state TV on Monday. Like other experts, he said it would have been impossible to predict when or if a serac — a pinnacle from a glacier's overhang — could break off, as it did on Sunday.

Unheard-of heat

Alpine rescuers on Sunday noted that late last week, the temperature on the 3,300-metre-high peak had topped 10 C, far higher than usual. Operators of rustic shelters along the mountainside said temperatures at the 2,000-metre level recently reached 24 C, unheard-of heat in a place where excursionists go in summer to keep cool.

The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest in the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy. People ski on it in the winter. But the glacier has been rapidly melting away over the past decades, with much of its volume gone. Experts at the CNR research centre, which has a polar sciences institute, estimated a couple of years ago that the glacier won't exist anymore 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 hot spot," likely to suffer heat waves and water shortages, among other consequences.

This image released Sunday by the Italian National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps shows the type of rescue helicopters used on the glacier. (Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico/The Associated Press)

Pope Francis, who has made care of the planet a priority of his papacy, tweeted an invitation to pray for the avalanche victims and their families. "The tragedies that we are experiencing with climate change must push us to urgently search for new ways that are respectful of persons and nature," Francis wrote.

now