The entombment of a Russian village under 3 million tons of ice and mud from a collapsing glacier is a sign of the gradual yet vast climatic changes sweeping the world's mountainous regions, scientists say.
The disaster on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia's North Ossetia region last week left more than 100 people missing and at least nine dead. Researchers maintain that the avalanche is part of a subtle chain of events that has transformed once-frozen mountains and is altering the course of nearby human settlements in unexpected, and sometimes disastrous, ways.
The changes often have been difficult to perceive, both because they have taken place over such a long period of time and their effects are not always clear - some regions have become colder, even as others warm. But scientists say there is little question that a world of ice is in flux.
Glacier National Park in Montana has lost more than 100 glaciers during the past century, vanished into a slow drip of runoff. In Venezuela, only two glaciers remain where there were six 30 years ago. In Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, about 75 percent of the glacier has retreated, leaving some to suggest that Ernest Hemingway's famous short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" will exist only in literature in about a decade.
During the course of a century, glaciers around the world have undergone an enormous change in dynamics brought about by the human use of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, and the decades-long swings in ocean and atmospheric patterns that can greatly affect weather. The past decade has brought some of the most rapid change of the century - seven of the past 10 years were the warmest on record.
The collapse of the Maili glacier ripped out trees and tossed huge trucks as if they were toys. It left a 20-mile path of rocky debris, ice and devastation.
It also may have killed one of Russia's most loved television and film stars, Sergei Bodrov Jr., 30, who was featured in East-West and the Academy Award-nominated Prisoner of the Mountains.
"Only those who managed to hide have a chance," says Irina Andrianova, spokeswoman for Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry in Moscow. "Those who were caught in the mudslide itself and are now under ice have no chance to survive at all."