The Marmolada Glacier

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On the western front, the Massif houses the largest glacier in the Dolomites, the Marmolada Glacier. This glacier set on the northern front of the massif, and is the most extensive of the entire Dolomites. Upstream it is bordered off by the rocky crest which culminates with Punta Rocca (3,310 m) and Punta Penia (3,344 m), but in certain parts the glacier reaches the ridge overlooking the extremely sheer south wall of the Marmolada. After the extensive retreat of recent years, the front has settled upstream of the rocky spurs (Sas da le Undes and Sas da
le Doudes) which, until a few years ago, were a sharp dividing line between the three sectors (Eastern, Central and Western ones). Now the front is flattened and slightly jagged, although the original division into the three segments still remains. Over recent years, it has been completely separated from the section occupied by the cirque downstream of Punta Penia which was previously joined to by a narrow strip of ice. This sector is now completely independent. In 1994 the surface of the glacier covered slightly more than 190 hectares. At the beginning of the 60s (data supplied by the Italian Glacier Register), the surface of the glacier was 305 hectares, while in the 80s (data supplied by the World Glacier Inventory), it was just 259 hectares. However, the international register classifies glaciers with different methods and it is probable that the surface has been overestimated. The glacier is fed directly, as it is not surrounded by high rocky walls, which discharge avalanches onto its surface. A certain amount of snow from the avalanches is found in the most western point, which is enclosed by rocky ridges which culminate with Punta Rocca and Punta Penia. In the years when there was less snow, or with the hottest summers, the glacier had virtually no residual snow, just a few patches on the highest points. The areas with crevasses have also been considerably reduced. The area beneath the front wall, thanks to its position and the virtually total absence of anthropic activity, shows traces of glacier modelling, contrary to the eastern and western areas, by now irreversibly transformed into ski runs. The west side of the main glacier of the Marmolada now is independent, enclosed in a tight cirque that opens to the north of Punta Penia. A few years ago, the connection with the Marmolada ice cap (the famous “Schena de Mul”), which continues through to Punta Penia, was broken off. The glacier is mainly fed by the avalanches that fall onto its surface from the steep rocky walls that surround it upstream. Over recent years, it has often been left with no residual snow, and therefore was not fed at all. The western Marmolada glacier is the continuation towards northwest of the icy cap of the Marmolada, and has a wide closed canyon to the west and formed by the massif of the Gran Vernel. The two parts of the glacier, the upper and lower ones, which were once joined by a steep ice canal, are now separated. In the last century, it was considered an integral part of the Marmolada glacier. In the period between 1991 and 2000, the front retreated of an average of 40 m, and the lower part was covered by a large amount of debris. In 2001, due to the heavy snows in winter 2000, quite a large nivation glacier formed on the lower part. In the Marmolada Group we also find the smaller Lower Vernale Glacier. The Lower Vernale Glacier derives from the division into two portions of the Vernale Glacier, which covered a large cirque between the Sasso Vernale and the Cime di Ombretta. The top portion of the glacier has now completely disappeared. This glacier too, is now reduced to the minimum levels and in 1994, its surface area was just 3.8 hectares. The Italian Glacier Register recorded a surface of 12 hectares in the 60s, before it divided up. It is fed both by direct snowfalls and by the avalanches that detach from the northwest wall of the Sasso Vernale.