Glacier collapse highlights climate threat say scientists

As authorities in Italy continue efforts to search for survivors leading scientists say the collapse of the Marmolada Glacier has been caused by climate change.

Authorities in Northern Italy say at least six people have been killed after being caught in an avalanche sparked by the collapse of the glacier on Monday.

Nine others were injured in the collapse, two seriously but the collapse came after a period of unseasonably high temperatures.

Rescue service spokesperson, Walter Milan told the media the area has been experiencing unusually high temperatures in recent days.

“The heat is unusual,” Milan explained adding temperatures had reached 10C at the glacier’s peak in recent days.

“That’s extreme heat,” he said. “Clearly it’s something abnormal.”

Climate scientists agree the heat and the changing climate had been a major contributor to the tragedy, adding it was indicative if the risks that climate change now posed across the world.

“The Dolomites in Italy, where this tragic accident occurred, experienced a drought throughout the winter with very little snowfall,” said Prof Jonathan Bamber, director of the Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol. “Combined with the unusually high temperatures across the region over the summer, glaciers are melting fast. The section that broke off was part of a hanging glacier with seracs or ice cliffs that become particularly unstable during in warm conditions such as those in the Dolomites right now.

“Glacier decline has been accelerating across the Alps over the last few decades due to global heating making the high mountains of Europe an increasing dangerous and unpredictable environment to be in.”

Prof Poul Christoffersen, professor in Glaciology at the University of Cambridge, was unequivocal as to the role climate change has played in the disaster.

“The Marmolada glacier collapse is a natural disaster linked directly to climate change,” he added. “High elevation glaciers such as the Marmolada are often steep and relying on cold temperatures below zero degrees Celsius to keep them stable.”

Christoffersen warned the tragedy is likely to be repeated as temperatures rise.

“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. Catastrophic glacier collapses such as this are becoming more frequent,” he said.

Professor Martin Siegert, co-director, at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, added: “This is what’s known as an ‘ice fall’, where the glacier flows from a stable, flattish upland topography (a corrie or cirque) onto steeper topography. Here, calving can occur and the system can become unstable. That stability is affected by melting, and as we’re well within the melt season now it’s unfortunately not a surprise that glacier like this may collapse across their steep section. Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France and Germany have a glacier monitoring programme where the state of many glaciers is assessed. I don’t know about the designated status of this glacier, but as a glaciologist I would avoid proximity to an ice fall in the melt season.”