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Extreme winter weather brings fatal avalanches and cuts off Alpine ski resorts

At least 16 people have died in avalanche-related accidents in Europe since the start of the year, as severe...

Posted: Jan 14, 2019 3:57 PM
Updated: Jan 14, 2019 3:57 PM

At least 16 people have died in avalanche-related accidents in Europe since the start of the year, as severe winter weather grips parts of the continent.

Three German skiers were killed and another is still missing, after they were buried in an avalanche near the Austrian ski resort of Lech am Arlberg over the weekend, a press officer for the western province of Vorarlberg told CNN.

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Meanwhile, in the French Alps, two ski patrollers were killed Sunday after devices they were using to trigger avalanches exploded, the Haute-Savoie region's high mountain gendarmerie said.

The severe weather has been fueled by a persistent area of low pressure, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

That has been felt in heavy snow along the northern Alps, and as far south as the mountainous areas of northern and central Spain, as well as in Greece, where thermometers registered an all-time low of -23 degrees Celsius (-9 Fahrenheit) last week.

The northern-facing slopes of the Alps in Germany and Austria, which have been battered by repeated rounds of storms, have seen upward of 10 feet in some spots.

A top-level red alert for extreme winter conditions was in effect on Monday for parts of southern Germany and Switzerland, as well as in Austria, where snow has made some motorways impassable, halted trains and paralyzed public life.

An estimated 13,000 people were stranded in the Swiss Alpine resort of Zermatt last week after heavy snow and power cuts shuttered ski lifts and mountain paths, Reuters reported.

"There are locations, mainly in Austria and southern Bavaria, where we haven't seen this level of snowfall ever before, or at least not to that extreme," Florian Pappenberger, the director of forecasts at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, said. "It is unusual, you don't get very often people chipping the tops of their houses free of snow."

In the first week of the month alone, many parts of Austria have already seen their entire January snow average reached, according to the Austrian meteorological service.

And no signs of a let-up in the snowfall are expected until Tuesday.

In Austria, a rescue mission for the fourth skier was suspended because of continuous heavy snow and avalanche warnings in the area, Vorarlberg press officer Florian Themessl-Huber said, adding that rescuers may not be able to resume their work until Tuesday or even Wednesday. The Austrian federal police and army are on the scene to help with the search and moving snow.

While Austria is no stranger to heavy snowfall at this time of year, the rapid accumulation in recent days has raised fears of further avalanches.

According to the WMO, the cold wave in eastern Europe will continue for at least another week, with deep snow persisting.

Above-normal precipitation in the eastern Mediterranean region and parts of the Middle East is also expected for the next couple of weeks, WMO said.

Last week, Syrian refugees living in Lebanese camps bore the brunt of the unusual winter weather, coping with devastating floods and near-freezing temperatures.

"Wherever you went there was wind and cold and wetness," Fatima Saleem al-Khalife, a 30-year-old living in a camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, told CNN.

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