Glaciers in Europe’s Alps are becoming more unstable and dangerous as rising temperatures linked to climate change are reawakening what were long seen as dormant, almost fossilised sheets of ice.
Italy has been baking in an early summer heatwave, and in the Italian Dolomite Mountains tragedy struck on Sunday when a glacier collapsed on the highest peak in the range – Marmolada – killing at least seven people.
Another 14 people remain missing and authorities have cautioned that it is not clear how many people were on the 3,300-metre mountain when the glacier gave way.
Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Monday linked the collapse to climate change.
The collapse of the glacier was “without doubt linked to the deterioration of the environment and the climate situation”, Draghi said during a visit to the headquarters of the rescue operation in the Dolomites.
What caused a pinnacle of the glacier to break off and thunder down the slope – at a speed estimated by experts at some 300kph (186 mph), sending huge chunks of ice, snow and rocks slamming into hikers – was not immediately known.
But the tragedy struck one day after a record-high temperature of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded at the summit of the glacier, which has been rapidly melting over the past decades, with much of its volume gone.
‘Perfect storm for glaciers’
“This summer 2022 risks being the perfect storm for glaciers,” said Giovanni Baccolo, an environmental scientist and glaciologist at Milan-Bicocca University, noting a lack of winter snow and a ferociously hot start to summer in Italy.
“Nobody could have expected a glacier like the Marmolada to react like this,” he told Reuters.
“It is a kind of climatic fossil, glaciers like the Marmolada are considered ‘placid’, they are expected to just retreat.”
Baccolo said intrepid hikers heading into the mountains to escape the summer heat should be careful about where they venture, as it “may no longer be enough to read the signs from the glacier that have been read so far”.
Glaciers at high, steep elevations such as the Marmolada rely on temperatures below zero degrees Celsius “to keep them stable”, said Poul Christoffersen, professor in glaciology at the University of Cambridge.
“But climate change means more and more meltwater, which releases heat that warms up the ice if the water re-freezes, or even worse: lifting up the glacier from the rock below and causing a sudden unstable collapse,” he said.
The Mediterranean basin, which includes southern European countries like Italy, has been identified by United Nations experts as a “climate change hot spot”, likely to suffer heatwaves and water shortages, among other consequences.