At least six people have died and eight were injured after a large chunk of an alpine glacier broke off and tumbled down a mountain in Italy.
About 10 people were missing after the cascade of ice, snow and rock slammed into hikers on a popular trail in the Dolomites on Sunday afternoon.
Rescuers were searching for survivors, but the provincial government of Trento has warned it expects a ‘heavy toll’ after the large ‘ice avalanche’, which came amid record temperatures.
The glacier, in the Marmolada range, is the largest of the Dolomites in northeast Italy and is used as a ski slope in winter, but its ice has melted rapidly in recent years.
On Sunday evening, officials were still working to determine how many hikers were in the area when the ice avalanche hit, said Walter Milan, spokesman for the National Alpine Rescue Corps which provided the death and injured toll. .
Rescuers were checking license plates in the parking lot as part of checks to determine how many people might be missing, a process that could take hours, he told The Associated Press.
“We have seen dead [people] and huge chunks of ice, rock,” exhausted-looking rescuer Luigi Felicetti told Italian public television.
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 injured were airlifted to several hospitals in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, according to the emergency services.
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 for the affected area of Marmolada Peak involved at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.
The search for other victims or missing has been temporarily halted while rescuers assess the risk of more of the glacier breaking away, Walter Cainelli said, after leading a rescue mission with a search dog, to state television.
Rescuers said blocks of ice continued to fall. At the beginning of the evening, a light rain began to fall.
The SUEM expedition service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck would be evacuated by the Alpine Rescue Corps.
But Mr Milan said some on the slope might be able to descend on their own, including using the summit cable car.
SUEM said the avalanche consisted of “a dumping of snow, ice and rock”. The detached section is known as the ice serac or pinnacle.
La Marmolada, rising to about 3,300 meters (about 11.00 feet), is the highest peak in the Eastern Dolomites, offering spectacular views of other Alpine peaks.
The Alpine Rescue Service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca, or Rock Point, “along the route normally used to reach the summit.”
It was not immediately clear what caused the section of ice to break up and rush down the slope of the peak. But authorities said the intense heatwave that has gripped Italy since late June was likely to be a factor.
“The temperatures of these days clearly had an influence” on the partial collapse of the glacier, Maurizio Fugatti, president of the province of Trento, told Sky TG24 news.
Experts from the Italian research center CNR, which has a polar science institute, have predicted that the glacier will not exist within three decades, as it is melted by rising temperatures. The Mediterranean basin, shared by southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hotspot”, likely to suffer, among other consequences, heat waves and water shortages.
But Mr Milan pointed to the high heat, which soared unusually above 10C at the top of Marmolada in recent days, as just one possible factor in Sunday’s tragedy.
“There are so many factors that could be involved,” he added. Avalanches in general are unpredictable, he said, and the influence of heat on a glacier “is even more unpredictable.”
In separate comments on Italian public television, Mr Milan described recent temperatures as “extreme heat” for the peak. “Obviously, it’s something abnormal.”
Additional reports by agencies
The Independent Gt