The summer season was just getting into the swing in the mountain towns based around the Marmolada, the highest peak in the Italian Dolomites, when a huge mass of ice from a glacier on its north side snapped off last Sunday afternoon, causing a fatal avalanche.
Hotels, restaurants and mountain refuges were packed, and trails busy with hikers, climbers and cyclists, many flocking to the mountains in search of slightly fresher temperatures during Italy’s intense heatwave.
As the death toll from the avalanche, in which 10 people are so far confirmed to have been killed, rose, leaders of three towns on the edges of the Marmolada made the drastic decision to shut off key access points to the higher levels of the mountain . The move was unpopular – some hikers tried to circumvent the ban – but necessary.
“The primary reason is safety – for those doing the rescue operation at the site of the disaster, and to prevent people getting near the site,” said Dimitri Demarchi, the deputy mayor of Canazei, the main resort town in the area. “We also need time to understand what the situation is like on the glacier – there are two suspended seracs on the piece that fell which are being continuously monitored.”
As rescuers continue their search for the two people still missing, debate in Italy has turned to how a repeat of the tragedy can be avoided while striking a balance between mitigating the risks and maintaining an economic lifeline for the communities whose livelihoods depend on mountain and glacier tourism.
Some experts point to the example of Courmayeur, the town in the Aosta Valley close to Planpincieux, a hanging glacier on the southern slopes of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc range of the Alps. Planpincieux has been closely monitored since 2013 to detect the speed at which the ice is melting and on several occasions in recent years the cluster of homes, mostly holiday lets, in Val Ferret, a hamlet beneath the glacier, have been evacuated and a main road closed off whenever there were warnings that the glacier was in danger of sliding off. Just a day after the tragedy on the Marmolada, a portion of the road was briefly shut and one home evacuated over fears that heavy thunderstorms might cause hydrogeological problems on the continuously moving glacier.
Roberto Rota, the mayor of Courmayeur, said there is always a backlash from tourism operators whenever preemptive measures are imposed. “Their anger is understandable but at the same time we can’t do anything,” he added. “It’s not easy, but safety must be prioritized. The situation with glaciers is difficult across the world; if a glacier falls in an area where there is no tourism or people living, nothing happens, here in the Val Ferrat many people go up each day and so there is the risk of it falling and killing someone. This would mean the valley being closed off for months. ”
There are 903 glaciers in Italy, which between them are taking up 40% less land space than they did three decades ago. The Italian unit of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature warned this week that glaciers below a 3,500-meter altitude were forecast to disappear within the next 20-30 years because of global warming.
The retreat of glaciers inevitably has an impact on tourism and mountain sports. The only glacier in Italy where it is still possible to ski during the summer is Livrio in the Stelvio national park.
“Professional skiers come to train each summer but the possibility of skiing on the glacier gets lower each year because it’s melting, so we don’t know for how many more years it will be possible to ski there,” said Stefano Morosini, an historian at the national park.
Morosini is also a mountain climbing instructor with the Italian alpine club and believes the onus should be more on climbers assessing the risk of an excursion rather than mountains being completely closed off. He said a daily bulletin on avalanche threat should be provided during the summer and not just winter. “When the temperature is so high and there is a high risk of a glacier falling then mountaineers can be informed and if the risk is too high then they should renounce the excursion,” said Morosini. “There is never zero risk when you climb a glacier or mountain. But the danger of having a major decree shutting off a mountain is that the mountain could lose its identity as being a place of freedom. ”
Temperatures at the Marmolada peak in the days before the avalanche had topped 10C, a level described as “extreme heat, and clearly something abnormal” by Walter Milan, a spokesperson for the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps. Temperatures in the area have dropped in recent days, but it is unclear when the mountain access ban will be lifted.
“The Marmoloda is our Queen of the Dolomites and a significant tourist destination,” said Demarchi, who also owns a hotel in Canazei. “Clearly the impact is huge but at the moment it is more at an emotional level as it is early to assess the economic impact. We need to wait for the safety assessment from geologists before working out what to do next. ”