Marmolada glacier: what happened as 6 killed in Italian Alps

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About 17 people remain missing for a day after a huge section of an Alpine glacier in northern Italy broke off and crashed into hikers, officials said.

At least six people died and nine were injured when the avalanche of ice, snow and large rocks thundered down the slope of the mountain crowned by the Marmolada glacier on Sunday afternoon (3 July).

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Here’s everything you need to know about it.

What happened?

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What caused a peak of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope at a speed estimated by experts to be nearly 200 miles per hour wasn’t immediately known.

But the heatwave that has been sweeping Italy since May, bringing unusually high temperatures for the start of summer even in the normally cooler Alps, has been cited as a likely factor.

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Jacopo Gabrieli, a polar scientist at the state CNR 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.

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Like other experts, he said it was impossible to predict when or if a serac – a pinnacle from a glacial overhang – could break off, as it did on Sunday.

Alpine rescuers found on Sunday that the temperature at the 3,300-meter summit had surpassed 10C late last week, far higher than usual.

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Operators of rustic accommodation along the mountainside said temperatures at 2,000 meters have recently reached 24C, an unheard-of heat in a place where visitors go to cool off in the summer.

A rescue helicopter flies over the glacier that has collapsed on Mount Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites (Photo: PIERRE TEYSSOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Who are the victims?

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The nationalities of the known dead were not disclosed and conditions were too dangerous Monday morning (July 4) for rescue teams with dogs to continue searching for the missing or recover the bodies.

The bodies are being taken to an ice skating rink in the Dolomite resort of Canazei for identification.

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Trento prosecutor Sandro Raimondi said 17 hikers were missing, Italian news agency LaPresse reported.

Raimondi was quoted as saying that two of the nine injured were Germans. One of the injured patients in the intensive care unit has yet to be identified.

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Who is still missing?

16 vehicles remain unclaimed in the area’s parking lot, and authorities attempted to locate the occupants by license plates.

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It is unclear how many of the cars may have belonged to the victims already identified or the injured, all of whom were flown to hospitals by helicopter on Sunday.

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

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Drones are used to search for missing people.

Where are the Dolomites?

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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.

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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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