Image of marmolada glacier in a cloudy day

Thermal drones seek survivors of Italian Alps glacier collapse

Image credit: Foto 180907966 © Jef Folkerts |

Emergency services are leveraging thermal drone technology to search for possible survivors of a deadly avalanche set off by the collapse of the largest glacier in the Italian Alps.

Recuers are using any means at their disposal – including thermal drones – to search for over a dozen climbers that may have become trapped under the ice after a glacier gave way on Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Italian Dolomites.

Authories said they do not know how many people were victim to the avalanche, which has already claimed at least six lives and injured eight people.

"We found bodies torn apart, in a shapeless tide of ice and debris stretching over 1,000 metres (3,280 feet)," Gino Comelli from the Alpine Rescue Service told the Corriere della Sera daily.

The disaster struck one day after a record-high temperature of 10°C was recorded at the glacier's summit. Emergency services spokeswoman Michela Canova told AFP an "avalanche of snow, ice and rock" hit an access path at a time when there were several roped parties, "some of whom were swept away".

Italian emergency services are currently looking for those feared missing, including several people from Italy, three Romanians, a French national, another person from Austria, and four people from the Czech Republic. Authorities initially used helicopters and sniffer dogs to look for traces of victims, but these were called off as night fell and amid fears the glacier may still be unstable.

Instead, rescuers have used drones equipped with thermal cameras to continue the search overnight and early Monday, Canazei mayor Giovanni Bernard told AFP.

"It is difficult for the rescuers in a dangerous situation", he said.

The victims were trapped by the avalanche when climbing a popular route in the Marmolada glacier. Scientists such a Massimo Frezzotti, a science professor at Roma Tre University, believe the collapse to have been caused by unusually warm weather linked to global warming, with precipitation down 40 to 50 per cent during a dry winter. 

Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner told La Republica newspaper that evidences of global warming can be seen in the mountain range.

"There is hardly any ice left," he said. "It's the global heat which causes glaciers to melt."

The heatwave that hit northern Italy between May and June resulted in the highest temperatures recorded in that period for nearly 20 years. The Sourthern European region has been identified by UN experts as a “climate change hot spot”, likely to suffer heatwaves and water shortages, among other consequences.

Experts at Italy’s state-run CNR research centre, which has a polar sciences institute, estimated a couple of years ago that the Marmolada glacier will not exist within 25-30 years, should its melting pace continue to be the same as it is today. 

The Trento public prosecutor's office has opened an investigation to determine the causes of the tragedy and the National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps have set up a phone number for people to report friends or relatives who have not returned from an excursion to the glacier.

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