About 10 people could be missing, Gianpaolo Bottacin, a civil defense official, told the online version of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. But Bottacin later told state television that it was not yet possible to provide a landline number.
The glacier, in the Marmolada Mountains, is the largest in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy and people ski there in winter. But the glacier has been melting rapidly in recent years.
Experts at the state-run CNR Research Center in Italy, which has an institute of polar sciences, say the glacier will be gone in the next 25-30 years and most of its volume has already disappeared. Shared by Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the Mediterranean Basin has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, which will suffer from heatwaves and water shortages, among other things.
As of Sunday evening, officials were still trying to determine how many hikers were in the area when the ice avalanche struck, said Walter Milan, a spokesman for the Alps National Rescue Corps that gave the death toll.
Rescuers checked license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people may be missing, a process that could take hours, Milan told The Associated Press by phone.
“We saw dead (people) and huge chunks of ice, rock,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian state TV.
Nationalities or ages of the dead were not immediately available, Milan said. Of the eight survivors hospitalized, two were in serious condition, authorities said.
The fast-moving avalanche “came down with a roar that could be heard from a great distance,” local online media site ildolomiti.it said.
Earlier, the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that the search of the affected area of the Marmolada peak involved at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.
The search for any more victims or missing persons was temporarily halted as rescuers assessed the risk that more could break off the glacier, Walter Cainelli told state television after conducting a rescue mission with a sniffer dog.
Rescuers said more and more ice blocks were falling. Early in the evening it started to rain lightly.
The SUEM dispatch service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice hit would be evacuated by the Alpine rescue corps.
But Milan said some on the slope may be able to get down on their own, including using the peak’s funicular.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “crashed snow, ice and rock.” The freestanding portion is known as a serac, or the pinnacle of ice.
Marmolada, with an elevation of about 3.3 km at the summit, is the highest peak in the Eastern Dolomites and offers spectacular views of other Alpine peaks.
The Alpine rescue service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the route normally used to reach the summit”.
It was not immediately clear what caused the chunk of ice to break loose and descend the slope of the summit. But the intense heat wave that has gripped Italy since late June could be a factor.
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“The temperatures of these days clearly influenced” the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, the president of the province of Trento, which borders Marmolada, told Sky TG24 news.
But Milan stressed that the heat, which has been unusually above 10C at Marmolada’s peak in recent days, was just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that can come into play,” Milan said. Avalanches in general aren’t predictable, he said, and the impact of heat on a glacier “is even more impossible to predict.”
In separate comments to Italian state television, Milan called the recent temperatures “extreme heat” before the peak. “It’s clearly something abnormal.”
The injured were flown to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to rescue services.