Rain hampers search for missing in Italian glacier avalanche

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ROME — Thunderstorms on Monday hampered the search for more than a dozen hikers missing for a day after a huge chunk of an Alpine glacier in Italy broke off, sending an avalanche of ice, snow and rock down the slope. Italian state television said another body had been recovered, bringing the known death toll to seven.

Nine others were injured when the avalanche emanated from the Marmolada glacier on Sunday afternoon when dozens of hikers made excursions, some of them using ropes.

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

At least four bodies taken to a makeshift morgue at an ice rink in Canazei, a resort town in the Dolomites, had been identified by Monday afternoon.

According to RAI, three of those identified were Italians, including an experienced mountain guide who was leading a group of hikers. Another was a hiker whose relatives said he had just sent a selfie of himself from the slope just before the avalanche hit.

One of the dead came from the Czech Republic, RAI said.

According to media reports, among the missing are some Italians, three Romanians, one with French nationality, another from Austria and four from the Czech Republic.

Venetian Regional Governor Luca Zaia said some of the hikers in the area were tied with ropes while climbing on Sunday.

Raimondi was quoted as saying that two of the injured were Germans. Zaia told reporters that one of the Germans was a 65-year-old man. One of the patients was so badly injured that identification has so far been impossible.

The hospital survivors suffered chest and skull injuries, Zaia said.

Drones have been deployed to search for missing persons and check security.

Sixteen cars remained unclaimed in the area’s parking lot, and authorities attempted to locate the occupants by 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 to hospitals by helicopter on Sunday.

Rescuers said conditions on the slope of the glacier, which has been melting for decades, were still too unstable as of early Monday to send teams of people and dogs back to dig through tons of debris.

The storm forced the helicopter flying Prime Minister Mario Draghi to the affected area to divert. It was not clear when he and the head of the national civil protection agency would arrive in Canazei for briefings.

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 – could break off as 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.

Pope Francis, who has made protecting the planet a priority of his papacy, tweeted an invitation to pray for avalanche victims and their families. “The tragedies we are witnessing with climate change must drive us to urgently seek new ways that respect people and nature,” wrote Francis.

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