Jhe summer season was just beginning 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 the north side broke away last Sunday afternoon, causing a deadly avalanche.
Hotels, restaurants and mountain huts were packed and the trails crowded with hikers, climbers and cyclists, many of whom flocked to the mountains in search of slightly cooler temperatures during Italy’s intense heatwave .
As the death toll from the avalanche, in which 10 people have so far been killed, rises, leaders of three towns on the edge of the Marmolada have taken the drastic step of closing key access points at higher levels of the mountain. . The decision was unpopular – some hikers tried to circumvent the ban – but necessary.
“The main reason is security – for those carrying out the rescue operation at the disaster site and to prevent people from approaching the site,” said Dimitri Demarchi, deputy mayor of Canazei, the main station seaside resort in the region. “We also need time to understand what the situation is like on the glacier – there are two seracs hanging over the piece that fell and are constantly being watched.”
As rescuers continue their search for the two people still missing, the debate in Italy has turned to how to avoid a repeat of the tragedy while striking a balance between mitigating risk and maintaining a economic lifeline for communities whose livelihoods depend on the mountain and glacier. tourism.
Some experts cite the example of Courmayeur, the Aosta Valley town near 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 how fast the ice is melting and on several occasions in recent years the group of houses, mainly holiday rentals, in Val Ferret, a hamlet under the glacier, have been evacuated and a main road closed whenever there were warnings that the glacier was in danger of slipping. Just a day after the Marmolada tragedy, part of the road was briefly closed and a house evacuated over fears severe thunderstorms could cause hydrogeological problems on the ever-moving glacier.
Roberto Rota, the mayor of Courmayeur, said there was always a reaction from tourist operators whenever preventive measures were imposed. “Their anger is understandable but at the same time nothing can be done,” he added. “It’s not easy, but safety must be a priority. The situation of glaciers is difficult throughout the world; if a glacier falls in an area where there is no tourism or inhabitants, nothing happens, here in Val Ferrat many people climb every day and therefore there is a risk that it will fall and kill somebody. This would mean the valley would be closed for months.
There are 903 glaciers in Italy, which alone occupy 40% less land space than three decades ago. The Italian unit of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature warned this week that glaciers below 3,500 meters are set to disappear within the next 20 to 30 years due to global warming.
The retreat of the glaciers inevitably has an impact on tourism and mountain sports. The only glacier in Italy where it is still possible to ski in summer is the Livrio in the Stelvio National Park.
“Professional skiers come to train every summer but the possibility of skiing on the glacier decreases every year because it melts, so we don’t know for how many more years it will be possible to ski there,” said Stefano Morosini, A historian. at the national park.
Morosini is also a mountaineering instructor with the Italian Alpine Club and believes it is more up to climbers to assess the risk of an excursion than to close the mountains completely. He said a daily avalanche threat bulletin should be provided during the summer and not just in the winter. “When the temperature is so high and there is a high risk of a glacier falling, mountaineers can be informed and if the risk is too high, they have to give up the excursion,” Morosini said. “There is never zero risk when climbing a glacier or a mountain. But the danger of having a major decree closing a mountain is that the mountain could lose its identity as a place of freedom.
Temperatures atop Marmolada in the days before the avalanche had topped 10C, a level described as “extreme heat and clearly something out of the ordinary” by National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps spokesman Walter Milan . Temperatures in the region have dropped in recent days, but it is unclear when the ban on access to the mountain will be lifted.
“La Marmoloda is our queen of the Dolomites and an important tourist destination,” said Demarchi, who also owns a hotel in Canazei. “It is clear that the impact is huge, but at the moment it is more on an emotional level because it is too early to assess the economic impact. We have to wait for the safety assessment of the geologists before to determine what to do next.