The summer season was just beginning in the mountain towns around the Marmolada, the highest peak of the Italian Dolomites, when a huge mass of ice broke off a glacier on the north side last Sunday afternoon, causing a deadly avalanche.
Hotels, restaurants and mountain huts were packed, and the trails were packed 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, which has killed 10 people so far, mounted, leaders of three towns on the edges of the Marmolada made a drastic decision to close key access points to the higher levels of the mountain. The move was unpopular – some hikers attempted to circumvent the ban – but necessary.
“The main reason is safety – for those who carry out the rescue operation at the scene of the disaster and to prevent people from approaching the place,” said Dimitri Demarchi, the deputy mayor of Canazei, the main resort town in the region. “We also need time to understand what the situation is like on the glacier – there are two floating seracs on the drop that are constantly monitored.”
As rescuers continue their search for the two people still missing, the debate in Italy revolves around how to avoid a repeat of the tragedy while striking a balance between mitigating risks and maintaining an economic lifeline for communities who depend on mountains and glaciers for their livelihood Tourism.
Some experts point to 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 chain of the Alps. Planpincieux has been closely monitored since 2013 to determine the speed at which the ice is melting and on several occasions in recent years the cluster of houses, mainly holiday rentals, in Val Ferret, a hamlet under the glacier, and a main road has been closed and evacuated, when there were warnings of glacier slippage. Just a day after the Marmolada tragedy, part of the road was briefly closed and a house evacuated amid fears that severe thunderstorms could cause hydrogeological problems on the ever-moving glacier.
Roberto Rota, the mayor of Courmayeur, said that whenever preventive measures are imposed, there is always a backlash from tourism providers. “Your anger is understandable, but at the same time there is nothing we can do,” he added. “It’s not easy, but safety must come first. The situation with glaciers is difficult worldwide; If a glacier falls in an area where there is no tourism or people live, nothing happens, here in Val Ferrat many people climb every day and there is a risk that it will fall down and kill someone. That would shut off the valley for months.”
There are 903 glaciers in Italy, which together take up 40% less land area than three decades ago. The Italian branch of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature warned this week that glaciers below 3,500 meters are likely 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 mountaineering. The only glacier in Italy where you can still ski in summer is Livrio in the Stelvio National Park.
“Professional skiers come to train every summer, but the opportunity to ski on the glacier decreases every year because it’s melting, so we don’t know how many 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 the responsibility should lie with climbers assessing the risk of an excursion rather than with mountains completely cordoned off. He said a daily avalanche danger bulletin should be provided in the summer, not just in the winter. “When the temperature is so high and there is a high risk of a glacier fall, mountaineers can be informed, and if the risk is too high, they should refrain from the excursion,” Morosini said. “There is never zero risk when climbing a glacier or a mountain. But the danger of a mountain being cordoned off by a major decree is that the mountain could lose its identity as a place of freedom.”
Temperatures on the Marmolada peak in the days leading up to the avalanche topped 10C, a level described as “extreme heat and clearly something abnormal” by Walter Milan, a spokesman for the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps. Temperatures in the area have dropped in recent days, but it’s unclear when the ban on access to the mountains will be lifted.
“The Marmoloda is our queen of the Dolomites and a major tourist destination,” says Demarchi, who also owns a hotel in Canazei. “The impact is clearly huge, but more on an emotional level at the moment as it is early to assess the economic impact. We must await the geologists’ safety assessment before considering what to do next.”