An unusually frigid and snowy winter across southern Europe delivered its most dramatic blow yet on Wednesday evening, when a four-star resort in the Abruzzo province of central Italy, Hotel Rigopiano, was buried in an avalanche. About 30 people were believed to be in the hotel when the avalanche struck, with two others having survived because they were outside the building. Inside, rescuers carefully combed through the ruined structure. Imagery from inside the hotel showed massive amounts of snow piled in hallways and pushed against windows (see Figure 2). On Friday morning, six of the missing people were found alive in an air pocket in the building, and several others may have survived, according to rescuers.
Central Italy has been rocked by multiple earthquakes over the last few months, the deadliest being a temblor on August 24 centered about 30 miles (45 kilometers) north of L’Aquila that killed nearly 300 people. Four quakes of magnitudes 5.3 to 5.6 struck over a four-hour period on Wednesday period about 15 mi (25 mi) northwest of L’Aquila. It appears these quakes likely triggered the avalanche at the hotel, which is located near the town of Farindola on the east side of the rugged central Apennines mountain range.
Very heavy amounts of snow fell on the east slopes of the central Apennines in the days leading up to Wednesday’s quake. At Valle Castellana, about 30 mi (45 km) northwest of Farindola, roughly three meters (118 inches) of snow fell in a 48-hour period early this week at a surprisingly low elevation of around 2000 feet (700 meters), according to international weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera.
Figure 1. Italian firefighters search for survivors after an avalanche buried a hotel near Farindola in central Italy, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. Rescue workers on skis reported no signs of life as they searched for around 30 people believed trapped inside. Image credit: Italian Firefighters/ANSA via Italian Firefighters.
Figure 2. This image, made available by the Italian Guardia di Finanza (finance police) shows the avalanche inside the Rigopiano Hotel, near Farindola, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. Rescue workers reported no signs of life Thursday at a four-star hotel buried by an avalanche in the mountains of earthquake-stricken central Italy. Image credit: Guardia di Finanza/ANSA via Finance Police.
Italy’s worst avalanche in a century
The Farindola avalanche may end up being among the worst on record in the Apennines, and Europe’s deadliest since an avalanche took 30 lives in the Austrian Alps village of Galtür on February 23, 1999. By far the worst avalanche disaster in modern European history was the White Friday sequence of avalanches that struck the Italian Alps in December 1916 during World War I. Many thousands of soldiers were stationed across the region, and very heavy early-season snows made the soldiers vulnerable to avalanches, some of which may have been triggered (intentionally or not) by shells fired into the snow. On a single day, December 13 (White Friday), some 270 soldiers were lost as an Austrian set of barracks was buried. More avalanches followed in the subsequent week, killing as many as 10,000 soldiers.
This winter’s snowy grip on southern Europe
Record cold and widespread snow have plagued large parts of Europe over the last several weeks. At least 60 cold-related deaths were reported in Poland and other European nations during the first 10 days of January, according to weather.com. On January 7, Moscow dipped to –30°C (–22°F), making it the city’s coldest Orthodox Christmas in official records going back 120 years. Before then, the city endured an unofficial –35°C (–31°F) on Orthodox Christmas 1881. Also on January 7, the Naples (Italy) International Airport dipped to –5.6°C (21.9°F), tying its all-time low set in January 1981. (Records at this site go back to 1949.) All-time lows were also set in Albania at Vlore, with –9.4°C (15.1°F) and Durres, with –9.0°C (15.8°F).
Figure 3. A migrant sits on a chair outside a tent at the snow-covered refugee camp of Vagiohori village, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of the Greek city of Thessaloniki, on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. The European Commission said conditions for refugees on islands and other camps where they are housed in tents despite severe cold weather, is "untenable.” Image credit: AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos.
The cold blast has been especially vivid in southeastern Europe, thanks in part to snowfall across places that rarely see it. The town of Taormina, on Sicily’s east coast, received more than 10 cm (4 in) of snow on January 7, its heaviest accumulation since 1956, according to Herrera. Last week, he added, several parts of the Peloponnese region of Greece reported their first snow cover in living memory, including the port of Lefkada. Historic sea-level snow also fell on the Greek coastal town of Kiato and on the islands of Othonio, Kefalonia, Meganisi, and Zante, according to Herrera. One of the first snowfalls in decades whitened the beaches of southeastern Spain on Wednesday night in the province of Alicante, though no snow was reported in the cities of Valencia and Alicante. The coastal town of Torrevieja last saw accumulating snow in December 1926.
Ice from the sky, Moroccan style
The cold air aloft made it all the way to northern Africa, where it fed the development of thunderstorms despite chilly surface air. The beach at Raf Raf, Tunisia, was partially covered by snow, the first sea-level accumulation in the country since 1981. A thunderstorm hit Tunis, Tunisia, on Tuesday while the surface temperature was just 3°C (37°F). Another thunderstorm left Morocco’s capital city of Rabat covered in a rare coating of graupel on Thursday afternoon, as shown in this clip from Morocco World News and in the embedded video at bottom. Graupel is produced when supercooled water droplets are captured by falling snowflakes, leading to dense showers of small, soft frozen pellets distinct from either hailstones or snowflakes. Temperatures at the Rabat airport dropped to 48°F (9°C) during the graupel shower.
Another stormy weekend for both U.S. coasts
The highly progressive parade of upper-level storms that’s been racing across the United States in recent days will continue this weekend. Several quick-hitting rounds of heavy rain and mountain snow are expected in California, including what could be the biggest deluge and highest surf to hit southern California in years. As much as 6” of rain could fall in coastal locations, including Los Angeles, and up to 9” in foothill and mountain areas, according to the NWS/Los Angeles office. Waves of up to 30 feet could crash into the central California coast from Friday into Saturday, with 15-foot waves possible along LA-area beaches. Waterspouts and hail are possible on Friday as short lines of thunderstorms, and perhaps low-topped supercell storms, swing across the southern California coast.
Farther downstream, a very intense surface low will spin up over the Southern Plains and push into the Southeast by early next week. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center is highlighting an enhanced risk of severe weather on Saturday over parts of the lower Mississippi Valley (with some potential for tornadoes) and on Sunday across northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. The surface low’s central pressure is expected to dip below 990 millibars, possibly challenging some local records for the all-time lowest pressures observed in January, as noted by Eric Webb (@webberweather). You can compare the observations as they come in with this handy NWS guide to month-by-month surface pressure records.
Thanks go to Maximiliano Herrera for several of the European and African statistics cited here. We’ll be back with a new post on Monday. Have a great weekend, everyone!
Video 1. A rare graupel thundershower pelts the capital city of Morocco, Rabat, on Thursday, January 19, 2017. Video credit: HESPRESS.