A devastating glacial collapse in northern Italy takes the lives of at least seven people. While an explanation for the event is being sought, experts have their suspicions. Is hiking in the mountains still safe?

Between rubble, ice and snow, rescue workers in northern Italy are still looking for missing people. Drones are circling over the scene of the accident on Wednesday.

At least seven people died in a glacier fall near Canazei on Sunday. The climbers hiked to the Marmolada. At more than 3340 meters, it is the highest mountain in the Dolomites – a popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts and hikers. Eight people were injured in the natural event on the side facing Trentino – including two Germans. A tragedy out of the blue that also raises questions about the future of alpine sports.

What happened on the Marmolada?

According to official information, last Sunday at around 1.30 p.m. a tower of glacial ice (Sérac) broke off the Marmolada massif and fell onto the path to the summit below. The masses of ice, snow and debris thundered down the valley at up to 300 kilometers per hour. The avalanche buried several climbers. At a height of around 2800 meters, the broken glacier material now extends over two kilometers. However, a part of the ice about 60 meters high and 80 meters deep is connected to the mountain massif, where there is now a visible gap.

What environmental factors may have contributed to the accident?

High temperatures and thus the entry of meltwater could have been the trigger, as the Swiss glaciologist Matthias Huss said. Italian climate researcher Roberto Barbiero agrees. The water could then have flushed a cavity between the rock and the ice and thus stole the glacial part from its footing. Unusually high temperatures have prevailed in the area for more than a month, the climate expert said. On the day of the accident, the value was about ten degrees above zero. Huss and Barbiero also cite the low levels of precipitation last spring and winter as additional factors. According to Barbiero, the glacier was therefore unable to benefit from the otherwise existing snow cover, which ultimately led to the snow melting about a month earlier than usual.

What effects does climate change have on mountain tours?

There have always been such dangers in the high mountains, said Huss. “However, the current climate change is leading to new and hitherto difficult to predict situations that have to be constantly reassessed.” The Austrian Board of Trustees for Alpine Safety points out that the Dolomite glacier has certain special features. “The rock below is very steep, that’s not the case everywhere,” said Matthias Knaus from the Board of Trustees in Innsbruck. One should not simply infer other glaciers from this one. Many glaciers slide into the valley on rather flat rock, which greatly reduces the risk of such dramatic events.

Is hiking still safe under such dangers?

The mountain guides in Italy are aware of the changes, explains the association of mountain guides in Italy. Their task is therefore to look for alternative routes with less risk. The Austrian Knaus recommends: In general, every mountain hiker should practice risk management. “If I am in a potential fall zone of a glacier, I should leave it again as soon as possible.” The Italian mountain guides also advise preparing the hike carefully at home. Barbiero refers to information provided by civil defense and the advice of hut keepers.

Can dangers from unstable glaciers be foreseen?

In the case of the Marmolada, the Italian Mountain Guides Association and climate expert Barbiero assume that the accident was not foreseeable. According to the glaciologist Matthias Huss, it is hardly possible for mountain guides, even with a lot of experience, to estimate whether a demolition is imminent. “If a critical situation is identified, only constant observation of the change could provide information about the timing of the event.” Matthias Knaus expects that early warning systems will be expanded in the coming years. However, Huss considers this to be a great challenge.