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Italy was enduring a prolonged heat wave before a massive piece of Alpine glacier broke off and killed hikers on Sunday and experts say climate change will make those hot, destabilizing conditions more common.

Seven hikers died and several others are unaccounted for after large chunks of ice and rock from the Marmolada glacier sped down the mountain in an avalanche.

Higher temperatures coupled with below-average winter snowfall were among the factors that may have triggered the event, experts said.

The exact role of climate change in specific events is complicated and large portions of ice can break off Alpine glaciers naturally. But climate change is fueling hotter temperatures that can lead to more ice and snow melt, said Brian Menounos, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia who researches climate change and glaciers.

“Glaciers are directly responding to a warmer climate, a warmer planet,” said Menounos. “They can respond to long-term changes, but they can also respond to these extreme events,” like heat waves.

The Marmolada glacier is in the Dolomite mountains, a range of steep, dramatic peaks in northeast Italy. The region is already being altered by climate change. Between the late 19th and early 21st century, temperatures in the Alps have increased twice as quickly as the global average, according to Copernicus, the European climate modeling group. The U.N. has identified the Mediterranean basin that includes Italy as a climate change hot spot prone to heat waves. Glaciers are in retreat throughout Italy, the Alps and across the world.

The government’s National Research Council said the Marmolada glacier has been shrinking for decades and may vanish in 25 to 30 years.

Before the avalanche, daytime temperatures at the glacier’s altitude were around 50F (10C) when they normally don’t rise much above freezing. The prolonged period of hot weather at high altitudes created a special set of circumstances, said Tobias Bolch who researches glaciers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Guglielmina Adele Diolaiuti, a professor at the University of Milan studying glaciers, said pictures of the ice that remains part of the glacier tell a story about what likely happened.

The top two thirds of the ice face appears slightly dirty, indicating it was exposed to air.

“It’s clear that this part of the vertical ice cliff was the internal part of a crevasse,” she said. A crevasse is a deep opening in a glacier.

The bottom is bluer, indicating it was attached, said Diolaiuti.

Water may have accumulated in the crevasse, adding weight and pressure on the glacier. It may also have loosened the glacier’s grip on the steep rock it was sitting on, experts said.

Anyone who has tried to shovel ice off a cold driveway knows that it fastens itself to the pavement, said Richard Alley, a Penn State professor who studies ice sheets. But when the weather warms, the ice loosens its hold.

“All of a sudden, whoosh, you can get it off,” Alley said.

A local official said the portion that broke loose is estimated to be 220 yards (200 meters) wide, 85 yards (80 meters) high and 65 yards (60 meters) deep. It rushed down the mountain at nearly 200 miles per hour (300 kph).

The hikers were likely taken completely by surprise.

In addition to the heat, there was below normal snowfall this winter. Northern Italy is struggling through its worst drought in 70 years. When there is less snow, ice is exposed and impurities can collect on the surface of the glacier, turning the surface a darker color that traps more heat. The extra heat melts the ice and snow faster, St. Andrews’ Bolch said.

On Tuesday, rescue efforts turned up equipment and body parts. After rain made rescue difficult on Monday, the sun reappeared on Tuesday.

According to Daniel Farinotti, a professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich and WSL Birmensdorf, Switzerland, climate change might reduce the risk of certain avalanches. Glaciers need cold weather and snowfall to grow. If glaciers grow on a steep slope, ice that is pushed over ledges can break and cause avalanches. But with warming temperatures, glaciers retreat, and smaller glaciers create fewer hazards, he said.

In the case of the avalanche on Sunday, melting ice and snow is the likely culprit, experts said.

“The ice, the snow, is very sensitive to increases in temperatures, so we expect that these kinds of events will increase in frequency and intensity in the future,” said Roberta Paranuzio who researches climate change at the National Research Council of Italy.

While some avalanches occur in isolated areas, the area around the Marmolada glacier is popular with hikers.

“The really warm weather was one of the reasons why the event occurred, but on the other hand, this really warm weather made it attractive for mountaineers to climb it,” Bolch said.


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Dems push Biden climate, health priorities toward Senate OK

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats drove their election-year economic package toward Senate approval early Sunday, debating a measure that is less ambitious than President Joe Biden’s original domestic goals but touches deep-rooted party dreams of slowing global warming,moderating pharmaceutical costs and taxing immense corporations.

The legislation cleared its first test in the evenly divided chamber when Democrats burst past unanimous Republican opposition and voted to begin debate 51-50, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. The House planned to return Friday to vote on what Democrats hope will be final congressional approval.

“It will reduce inflation. It will lower prescription drug costs. It will fight climate change. It will close tax loopholes and it will reduce and reduce the deficit,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the package. “It will help every citizen in this country and make America a much better place.”

Republicans said the measure would undermine an economy that policymakers are struggling to keep from plummeting into recession. They said the bill’s business taxes would hurt job creation and force prices skyward, making it harder for people to cope with the nation’s worst inflation since the 1980s.

“Democrats have already robbed American families once through inflation, and now their solution is to rob American families a second time,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued. He said spending and tax hikes in the legislation would eliminate jobs while having insignificant impact on inflation and climate change.

Nonpartisan analysts have said the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act would have a minor impact on surging consumer prices. The bill is barely more than one-tenth the size of Biden’s initial 10-year, $3.5 trillion rainbow of progressive dreams, and the new package abandoned universal preschool, paid family leave and expanded child care aid.

Even so, the measure gives Democrats a campaign-season showcase for action on coveted goals. It includes the largest ever federal effort on climate change — close to $400 billion — and would hand Medicare the power to negotiate pharmaceutical prices and extend expiring subsidies that help 13 million Americans afford health insurance.

Biden’s original measure collapsed after conservative Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., opposed it, saying it was too costly and would fuel inflation.

In an ordeal imposed on all budget bills like this one, the Senate descended into an hours-long “vote-a-rama” of rapid-fire amendments. Each tested Democrats’ ability to hold together a compromise negotiated by Schumer, progressives, Manchin and the inscrutable centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Progressive Sen. Bernie Sander, I-Vt., offered amendments to further expand the legislation’s health benefits, and they were defeated. But most proposed changes were fashioned by Republicans to unravel the bill or force Democrats into votes on dangerous political terrain.

One GOP proposal would have forced the Biden administration to continue Trump-era restrictions that cited the pandemic for reducing the flow of migrants across the Southwest border.

Earlier this year, Democrats facing tough reelections supported such an extension, forcing the party to drop its push for COVID-19 spending when Republicans conjoined the two issues. This time, with their far larger economic legislation at stake and elections approaching, Democrats rallied against the border controls.

Other GOP amendments would have required more gas and oil leasing on federal lands and blocked a renewal of a fee on oil that helps finance toxic waste cleanups. All were rejected on party-line votes. Republicans accused Democrats of being soft on border security and opening the door to higher energy and gas costs.

Before debate began Saturday, the bill’s prescription drug price curbs were diluted by the Senate’s non-partisan parliamentarian. Elizabeth MacDonough, who referees questions about the chamber’s procedures, said a provision should fall that would impose costly penalties on drugmakers whose price increases for private insurers exceed inflation.

It was the bill’s chief protection for the 180 million people with private health coverage through work or that they purchase themselves. Under special procedures that will let Democrats pass their bill by simple majority without the usual 60 vote margin, its provisions must be focused more on policy than dollar-and-cents budget changes.

But the thrust of their pharmaceutical price language remained. That included letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for drugs for its 64 million elderly recipients, penalizing manufacturers for exceeding inflation for drugs sold to Medicare and limiting beneficiaries out-of-pocket drug costs to $2,000 annually.

The bill also caps patients’ costs for insulin, the diabetes medication, at $35 monthly.

The measure’s final costs were being recalculated to reflect late changes, but overall it would raise more than $700 billion over a decade. The funding would come from a 15% minimum tax on a handful of corporations with yearly profits above $1 billion; a 1% tax on companies that repurchase their own stock, beefed up IRS tax collections and government savings from lower drug costs.

Sinema forced Democrats to drop a plan to prevent wealthy hedge fund managers from paying less than individual income tax rates for their earnings. She also joined with other Western senators to win $4 billion to combat the region’s horrific drought.

It was on the energy and environment side that Democrats’ compromise was most evident between progressives and Manchin, a champion of fossil fuels and his state’s coal industry.

Efforts fostering clean energy would be strengthened with tax credits for buying electric vehicles and manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines. There would be home energy rebates, funds for constructing factories building clean energy technology and money to promote climate-friendly farm practices and reduce pollution in minority communities.

Manchin won billions to help power plants lower carbon emissions plus language requiring more government auctions for oil drilling on federal land and waters. Party leaders also promised to push separate legislation this fall to accelerate permits for energy projects, which Manchin wants to include a nearly completed natural gas pipeline in his state.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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