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15th Aug 2022

Italy glacier tragedy has 'everything to do' with climate change

  • The Marmolada is one of the most popular peaks among hikers and mountaineers (Photo: Dmitry A. Mottl)
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In the early hours of Sunday afternoon (3 July), a huge chunk of the Marmolada glacier in the Dolomites (northeastern Italy) broke off with a tremendous roar.

The collapse of what is technically called a serac triggered an avalanche of rocks and ice that fell at 300 kilometers per hour, sweeping away several hikers. Some were marching toward the summit, some were descending.

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An Italian witness, who narrowly escaped the avalanche, called it "a sea of ice". Running would have been hopeless; he embraced his Israeli partner and they huddled together as the avalanche passed within a short distance of them.

At present there are seven confirmed victims and eight injured, two of whom in serious condition. Besides, at least 13 hikers are missing, both from Italy and elsewhere in Europe (according to still unconfirmed information, they could be Czechs, Germans, and Romanians).

Experts rule out the possibility of finding anyone alive. Access to the entire area is forbidden: the glacier is extremely unstable and dangerous, and new collapses are feared.

For that reason, rescue teams are using drones to pinpoint locations for helicopter intervention. On Monday afternoon, however, even the drones had to stay on the ground for several hours due to bad weather.

Italian media quoted rescuers telling of "mangled remains amid a shapeless tide of ice and debris". All of Italy is in shock.

For many in the country, and especially in the northern regions, going to the mountains in summer is a way to escape the unbearable heat of the cities and chill out.

The Marmolada is one of the most popular peaks among hikers and mountaineers.

Prime minister Mario Draghi decided to leave Rome on Monday despite tensions with the Five Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte. He headed to Canazei, an Alpine village at the foot of the Marmolada mountain.

"This is a drama that has some unpredictability, but it certainly depends on the deterioration of the environment and the climate situation," Draghi stated, surrounded by local administrators and rescuers. "The government must reflect and take action," he said.

Paolo Bernard owns a newsstand in Canazei.

He told Euobserver that "the whole village is shocked. To my memory nothing like this, so unbelievable, has ever happened, there has never been the collapse of such an amount of mountain. Of course, in winter there can be avalanches, and unfortunately, sometimes someone dies because of them. But now you have to be more careful in summer too."

Another resident said she felt like crying. "This exceptional heat has killed many innocent people," she said.

Italy has suffered for weeks from emergencies related to the climate crisis. A severe drought is bringing farmers in the north to their knees and has dramatically reduced the water levels of the Po River, which flows from the mountains in the northwest across the Po Valley and into the Adriatic Sea.

The whole country has been gripped by an abnormal heat wave for the past two weeks.

Yet, so far, the Draghi-led government has shown little attention to environmental issues: for instance, not much has been done to encourage farmers to use smart irrigation systems, or for the building of water catchment basins.

Wake-up call

But what happened on the Marmolada might be a wake-up call for Italian politics.

Although some assure that the collapse of the glacier could not have been predicted, climatologists, mountain experts and glaciologists agree in blaming the tragedy on climate change.

South Tyrolean and world-famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner told a news agency that "these seracs fall because of gravity, of course, but the real original cause is global warming, which melts glaciers and makes it more likely for a serac to break off".

"This tragedy has a lot, indeed, everything to do with climate change," Giorgio Vacchiano, a forestry researcher at the University of Milan with extensive knowledge of the Italian mountains, explained to EUobserver.

"The day before the detachment the temperature on the Marmolada summit reached 10 degrees, one of the all-time highs", he said.

According to the researcher, the drought affecting Italy in recent months, as well as Storm Vaia in 2018 or the extraordinary floods in Venice in 2019 are important signs.

"The Mediterranean basin is warming at about twice the rate of the global average, which is why we are already seeing these serious effects of climate change in Italy", Vacchiano said.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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