Drones used in search after fatal Italian glacier avalanche

ROME (AP) – Drones flew over an Italian Alpine mountain on Monday to spot more victims, a day after a huge chunk of fast-melting glacier broke free and an avalanche of ice, snow and rock slammed into hikers. At least six people were killed and an undetermined number are missing.

Rescuers discovered six bodies on Sunday and said nine injured survivors were found. Attention has been focused on determining how many people may have been hiking and missing on Marmolada peak. Sixteen cars remained unclaimed in the area’s parking lot.

The authorities tried to locate the occupants based on the license plates. It was unclear how many of the cars might have belonged to the victims already identified or the injured, all of whom were flown by helicopter to hospitals in northeastern Italy on Sunday.

After the search was temporarily halted Sunday night, officials said about 15 people may be missing but stressed the situation was evolving.

Rescuers said conditions beneath the glacier, which has been melting for decades, are still too unstable to immediately send teams of people and dogs to dig through tons of debris.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the head of the national civil protection agency were due to travel Monday to Canazei, a tourist town in the Dolomites that has served as a base for rescue workers.

Relatives were also expected to go into town to identify bodies if rescuers could safely remove them from the mountain.

It was not immediately known what caused a tip of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts to be around 300 km/h (almost 200 mph). But the heatwave that has been sweeping Italy since May, bringing unseasonably high temperatures for early summer even in the normally cooler Alps, has been cited as a likely factor.

Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar scientist at the CNR state research center in Italy, noted that the long May-June heatwave was the hottest in northern Italy for that period in almost 20 years.

“This is absolutely an anomaly,” Gabrieli said in an interview on Italian state television on Monday. Like other experts, he said it was impossible to predict when or if a serac – a peak of a glacial overhang – might break off, which it did on Sunday.

Alpine rescuers on Sunday found that the temperature at the 3,300-meter (11,000-foot) summit had surpassed 10C (50F) late last week, far higher than usual. Operators of rustic lodgings along the mountainside said temperatures at 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) have recently reached 24C (75F), unprecedented heat in a place where summer trippers go to cool off.

The glacier in the Marmolada is the largest in the Dolomites in north-eastern Italy. In winter you ski on it. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent decades, with much of its volume gone. Experts from the CNR state research center in Italy, which has an institute for polar science, estimated a few years ago that in 25 to 30 years the glacier will no longer exist.

The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries like Italy, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, which is likely to suffer from heat waves and water shortages, among other things.

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