Italy weighs risks to life and livelihoods after Marmolada tragedy

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The summer season was just beginning in the mountain villages around Marmolada, the highest peak in the Italian Dolomites, when a huge mass of ice from a glacier on its northern side broke off last Sunday afternoon, causing an avalanche. fatal.

Hotels, restaurants and mountain lodges were packed, and 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 heat wave.

As the death toll from the avalanche mounted, in which 10 people have so far been confirmed dead, the leaders of three villages on the edges of the Marmolada took the drastic decision to close key access points to the higher levels of the mountain. . The move was unpopular, some hikers tried to circumvent the ban, but necessary.

“The main reason is security: for those who carry 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 tourist town in the area. “We also need time to understand what the situation is like on the glacier: there are two seracs suspended in the piece that fell and they are being continuously monitored.”

As rescuers continue their search for the two people who are still missing, debate in Italy has focused on how the tragedy can be prevented from repeating itself while striking a balance between mitigating risks and maintaining an economic livelihood for communities whose livelihood depends on mountains and glaciers. sightseeing.

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 range of the Alps. Planpincieux has been closely monitored since 2013 for the rate at which the ice is melting and on several occasions in recent years the cluster of houses, mostly vacation rentals, in Val Ferret, a village below the glacier, have been evacuated and a main road closed every time there were warnings that the glacier was in danger of sliding. Just one day after the Marmolada tragedy, a section of the road was briefly closed and a house was evacuated for fear that strong thunderstorms could cause hydrogeological problems on the ever-moving glacier.


Roberto Rota, mayor of Courmayeur, said there is always a backlash from tour operators whenever preventive measures are imposed. “Your anger at him is understandable, but at the same time we can’t do nothing,” he added. “It is not easy, but you have to prioritize security. The situation with glaciers is difficult all over the world; if a glacier falls in an area where there is no tourism or people living, nothing happens, here in Val Ferrat a lot of people go up every day and then there is a risk of it falling and killing someone. This would mean that the valley would be closed for months.”

There are 903 glaciers in Italy, which between them 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 forecast to disappear in the next 20 to 30 years due to global warming.

The retreat of the glaciers inevitably affects tourism and mountain sports. The only glacier in Italy where skiing is still possible during the summer is Livrio in the Stelvio National Park.

“Professional skiers come to train every summer, but the possibility of skiing on the glacier is reduced every year because it is melting, so we don’t know how many more years it will be possible to ski there,” said Stefano Morosini, a historian. in the national park.

The police block a road in the Marmolada mountain. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Morosini is also a mountaineering instructor at the Italian alpine club and believes the onus should lie more with climbers assessing the risk of an excursion rather than mountains being completely closed. 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 falling from a glacier, then mountaineers can be informed and if the risk is too high, then they should give up the excursion,” Morosini said. “There is never zero risk when you climb a glacier or a mountain. But the danger of having a major decree to close a mountain is that the mountain could lose its identity as a place of freedom.”

Temperatures at Marmolada peak in the days leading up to the avalanche had exceeded 10C, a level described as “extreme heat and clearly somewhat abnormal” by Walter Milan, spokesman for the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps. Temperatures in the area have dropped in recent days, but it is unclear when the ban on access to the mountain will be lifted.

“The Marmoloda is our Queen of the Dolomites and a major tourist destination,” said Demarchi, who also owns a hotel in Canazei. “Clearly, the impact is enormous, but at the moment it is more on an emotional level, since it is early to assess the economic impact. We need to await the safety assessment from geologists before deciding what to do next.”

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