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Yearly Archives: 2015 − News & Stories


Looking back at 2015 – January and February

The year 2015 began in Spitsbergen the way it finished, with a deadly snow avalanche. A young man died buried under masses of snow. He had not been at home when desaster struck, but on his snow mobile, riding steep slopes.

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

I was in the Ross Sea. Could hardly have been further away. A long, long sea journes, rich in impressions and experiences of all sorts. After having done this trips already once in 2013, I had three secret wishes for this one: a Ross seal, clear views of Mount Erebus and Cape Adare. I got all of it. Strike home!

2015 seen from spitsbergen-svalbard.com’s perspective

A little view back on a year in high latitudes. Some of my own experiences from the Arctic and Antarctic and some events from Spitsbergen that caught many peoples’ attention made this year an interesting one. Not that other years have been boring. But this one was quite special indeed.

Every day, little post viewing a month or two will be posted here, of course with a rich selection of photos.

Avalanche in Longyearbyen: political aftermath

The avalanche in Longyearbyen has done more than “just” physical damage, it has also started discussions that are likely to keep people busy for a while. The situation in Longyearbyen has become more stable now, but evacuations are being held until at least January 01, as the weather situation is becoming unfavourable again, with stronger wind, precipitation and temperatures around freezing. It will take time until everybody can return to normal life, if at all possible. And then, there are those who will never be able to return to normal life or life at all. Two lost their lives in the snow, a 2 year old girl and a 42 year old man. Two are dead, and life will never be the same for their family and friends.

Their lives have ended abruptly on Saturday before Christmas, and nobody expected the avalanche on that very day. But questions are now asked if the avalanche was really as unexpected as could be read and heard everywhere after the event. Actually, the local avalanche risk has kept researchers busy in recent years and local politicians are not unaware of this. In his phd, Markus Eckerstorfer has done work on the avalanche risk in Longyearbyen. In a recent interview in the Norwegian newspaper VG, Eckerstorfer points out that the avalanche risk was described already in a report in 2001. Also more recently, both researchers and politicians have been working with the avalanche hazard. The community administration (Lokalstyre) has pointed out in 2012 that parts of Longyearbyen are exposed to avalanche risks, not only limited to the possibly wider known hazard of rockfalls especially on slopes above Nybyen, but also snow avalanches. The option to blow up dangerous cornices as a preventive measure is mentioned as well as evacuating certain areas preventively. There have been snow avalanches in recent years that almost reached houses in Nybyen and the nearby road.

Eckerstorfer also points out that the weather situation that led to the avalanche, with strong easterly winds, had generally been known as a significant contributing factor to the avalanche risk. None of the authorities which had issued weather warnings before the avalanche had pointed out avalanche risks.

The bottom line is that the question of responsibility and future preventive measures will definitely be discussed, being faced with the loss of two lives in their homes and the existing knowledge of the avalanche hazard in parts of Longyearbyen now hit.

An avalanche warning system as has been in use in mainland Norway for some time already has repeatedly been demanded also for Longyearbyen. While a lot had been said about it and nothing being done, things have suddenly happened after the avalanche: there is now a preliminary warning system on varsom.no.

The relevant part of Longyearbyen before the avalanche (image © Norwegian Polar Institute).

Longyearbyen avalanche

The relevant part of Longyearbyen after the avalanche. Houses can be identified in both images by the numbers. Buildings have been moved up to 80 metres (photo © Geir Barstein/Svalbardposten).

Longyearbyen avalanche

Avalanche in Longyearbyen: evacuation partly lifted

Some of the people who were evacuated from their homes in Longyearbyen during the weekend could now return, even though normal life will probably a long way away for most, if not all, considering the circumstances.

The evacuation has been lifted in the following addresses and inhabitants can return to their homes:

Vei 230 nr. 29, 31, 33, 35, 37 and 39. The old hospital. Nybyen and the road to Nybyen. The way from Hilmar Rekstens Vei up to the lowermost Spisshusene in Vei 230 can be used.

For all further areas, evaluation is going on. But inhabitants have the opportunity to return to their homes briefly today between 12 and 14 hours to get their most important personal belongings (checkin and checkout required).

The actual avalanche area and houses damaged by the avalanche remain closed and cannot be entered.

Many have seen the “Spisshusene” like this in the summer and enjoyed the view. It will never be the same again. The mountain on the left side is Sukkertoppen, the avalanche started on the slope behind the old coal cableway (taubane).

Longyearbyen avalanche

Source: Sysselmannen

Avalanche in Longyearbyen: child confirmed dead

Tragic news from the avalanche yesterday in Longyearbyen: one of the children that were brought to the university hospital in Tromsø yesterday died today. The two other children are less severely injured.

The death toll of the avalanche thus rises to two: 42 years old Atle Husby and a child. Atle Husby’s name was published today after approval by his family.

The evacuation of many houses on Longyearbyen’s eastern side, near the mountain Sukkertoppen and in Nybyen, will be kept for an uncertain period until further notice. About 180 persons are currently not able to return to their homes. An extra flight was operated today evening to give people an opportunity to get to their families in mainland Norway and elsewhere. People directly affected by the avalanche could get a free seat.

The area in Longyearbyen hit by the avalanche on Saturday. One house was moved as much as 80 metres. Photo © Svalbardposten.

Longyearbyen-Avalanche

Source: Sysselmannen

Avalanche in Longyearbyen: more houses evacuated

More houses in Longyearbyen have been evacuated last night as a precautionary measure. Yesterday, the houses closest to Sukkertoppen, the mountain from which the avalanche came, had been evacuated. Later, all inhabitants of houses between the mountain and Hilmar Rekstens Vei (the road behind (=east of) Svalbardbutikken) had to leave the area. Altogether, about 180 people had to leave their homes until further notice. The area is closed, the people do not have the opportunity to go to their homes to get some personal items. The supermarket (Svalbardbutikken) and other relevant places have opened to give those concerned the opportunity to get important items. Locals who have already left for Christmas holidays have offered their flats, others have invited people into their homes with them. Readiness to help others in need is generally great.

The snow avalanche that had destroyed 10 of the so-called Spisshusene on the eastern edge of Longyearbyen took one human life, a local Norwegian man in his 40s. Several persons are injured. Some of these, including 2 children, were flown to Tromsø yesterday.

No further persons are declared missing, but the avalanche area continues to be searched today to be on the safe side.

An overview of the parts of Longyearbyen which are concerned: the blue circle indicates the source area of the avalanche, the red circle the area that has mainly suffered damage. The areas in the orange circles have been evacuated.

Longyearbyen-Avalanche

Source: Sysselmannen

Avalanche in Longyearbyen: one person confirmed dead

Today’s avalanche in Longyearbyen has taken one person’s life. Rescue forces found the body of a resident who was between 40 and 50 years old. Several persons are injured and at least 10 houses damaged. No further persons are missing.

A number of houses in the part of Longyearbyen concerned have been evacuated to prevent further risks. The houses are those ones which are nearest to the mountain Sukkertoppen. The addresses concerned are Vei 230 nr 29 – 39, Vei 228 – nr 6 -16 and 15-21, Vei 226 nr 10, 12 and 31 – 37 and Vei 222 Nr 5-17 as well as Vei 224 Nr. 6 and 7 and the old hospital (which has been an appartment house for many years now) and all houses in Nybyen, where guest houses and student halls of residency are located. The road from the centre to Nybyen is closed.

Near 100 rescue personell and volunteers are on location. Locals have offered their flats and private guest rooms to those who have lost their houses.

Some of the houses that have been damaged by the avalanche today (archive image).

Longyearbyen-Avalanche

Heaviest storm in Longyearbyen in 30 years: houses damaged by avalanche

Since days ago, there had been storm warnings for Svalbard for the last night, forecasting winds up to hurricane force. The storm that hit last night was the strongest one in Longyearbyen in 30 years. There have been several damages in Longyearbyen, the most dramatic one being houses which were damaged by a snow avalanche that went down from the western slope of Sukkertoppen, a smaller mountain on the corner between Longyeardalen (where most of the settlement is located) and Adventdalen. As far as is known, 10 houses were damaged. All rescue forces available and many volunteers are on location to help and to look for people. It is unknown if people have suffered injuries or worse. The damaged houses are the “Spisshusene”, a row of houses near Sukkertoppen in a part of Longyearbyen known as Lia (the row of colourful houses where the Arctic cotton grass is flowering so beautifully in summer). Some of the houses have been moved, it is said that the dislocation was up to 20 m at least. Some of the houses were probably empty as they had been used by employees of the mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, which had to dismiss a large number of miners recently. Others may already be in mainland Norway for Christmas. Other houses are currently occuppied, including families with little children. At least, there is so far no information about people being injured or even worse.

During the last night, local attention was more focussed on the dogyard in Adventdalen, where several people were on watch to look after the dogs. Everything seems to be well there, considering the circumstances. 

Several roofs have been damaged by wind, including the roof of the school.

There is so far no information about possible damage in Barentsburg or other settlements and stations in Svalbard.

An impression of the place of the avalanche. Photo (c) Svalbardposten.

Longyearbyen-Avalanche

Our thoughts are with the people in Longyearbyen!

Source: Sysselmannen, Svalbardposten, Facebook

Svalbard ice free: pregnant female polar bears can’t access denning areas

The current ice chart of Svalbard is heartbreakingly white. After a good ice winter in 2014-15, with a lot of ice especially on the east side of Spitsbergen, the current early winter is a complete disappointment:

Ice chart of December 9, 2015 from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The seas around Svalbard are completely ice free.

ice chart Svalbard

All over the arctic, the current ice situation is within the lower range of the average of recent decades. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, November 2015 is on place 6 of the negative list of bad ice years, but within two standard deviations of the average, which can be called “lower average” to keep things easy. But in the Svalbard region, things look worse. After a very ice-rich winter in 2014-15, which gave the polar bears a good reproductive season, the current season does not start good at all. The last November with so little ice was in 1991.

Even those areas in eastern Svalbard which traditionally have a lot of ice like Nordaustland, Kong Karls Land and Hopen are currently completely ice free. This means trouble for pregnant females who need to get to suitable areas to get established in snow caves where they should give birth in just a few weeks from now. Some females may already be on these islands, and in theory, others may swim there. Generally speaking, polar bears are excellent swimmers and easily able to cover amazing distances in the water. Pregnant females, however, need to be very careful with their energy reserves, as they are totally dependent on their fat reserves for several months around birth. She cannot hunt and eat between late November and late March and has to survive herself and feed her offspring (usually two cubs) entirely on her fat reserves.

Traditionally, females return to the same denning areas to give birth. It is uncertain if at least some have currently moved further east to Franz Josef Land, where ice conditions are currently better. But if they know that ..?

Ice conditions have always been varying strongly from year to year, but the trend to bad ice years is clear, in spite of the strong ice winter 2014-15. Altogether, a clear sign of ongoing climate change, making clear how important a strong result of the current climate negotiations in Paris would be.

Polar bear family in July 2015 in Hornsund: good ice conditions especially before and after birth are of vital importance.

polar bear family Hornsund

Source: Svalbardposten

Svalbard winter 2016: photo trip and a balloon adventure

Some new ideas for exciting travels to Spitsbergen in winter 2016: together with Spitzbergen Adventures, we are doing a photo trip into the arctic winter. In March, the regular change between sunlight and darkness is bringing constantly changing light and colours into the arctic winter landscape. Based in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, we will spend a full week to enjoy and explore the scenic beauty of Spitsbergen, mostly using snow mobiles for transportation, at a time when the light is often at its best, from glacial ice caves to wide valleys and the cold coast (literally: “Svalbard”). Click here for more information about this trip.

By snow mobile into Svalbard’s winter landscape. Sunsets can create stunning light in March.

photo trip Svalbard winter

Additionally, Spitzbergen Adventures has come up with something really new and special: the arctic balloon Adventure. Arctic scenery enjoyed from a bird’s eye view. Since flightseeing using motorized aircraft including planes and helicopters is completely banned, this is a unique and environmentally sound opportunity to see amazing scenery from a totally new perspective. The method has proven to work spectacularly during the solar eclipse in Svalbard in March 2015. Now, Spitzbergen Adventures is offering several departures for those who are keen on this adventure (click here for more info).

The Spitsbergen balloon adventure: A new idea by Spitzbergen Adventures.

Spitsbergen balloon adventure

Hiking to Pyramiden in the polar night

Hiking from Longyearbyen to Pyramiden in the polar night does not sound like a good plan. Not having serious equipment does not make it better. If you start such a demanding journey without at least a good sleeping bag, solid winter hiking boots and a weapon (and a lot of other stuff), then you are either crazy or suicidal.

So nobody would even think of this? Wrong. Yesterday (November 23), the Sysselmannen (police; search and rescue agency) had to go out by helicopter to search for a tourist from England who had left Longyearbyen and told people before that this was exactly what he intended to do – on his own. Some locals he had been talking to had contacted the Sysselmannen.

As it turned out, the many warning the man had received had already been enough to make him change his mind: he had already abandoned his ideas of a hike to Pyramiden, instead opting for a much more reasonable walk to mine 7.

The distance to Pyramiden is 50 km as the crow flies, but the distance over land is well over 100 km, especially as the fjords are still open. There are several crevassed glaciers on the way: altogether, an impossible task in darkness for a single person.

The last part of the overland route to Pyramiden: Nordenskiöldbreen and Billefjord (frozen).

Route to Pyramiden

Source: Svalbardposten

Tougher border controls between Norway and Svalbard

While Europe is debating tougher border regimes, the Norwegian government has implemented stricter border controls on flights between Norway and Svalbard. Passport controls in Oslo or Tromsø have to be expected now, where ID cards had been sufficient so far for non-Norwegian Europeans.

It is important to make sure that the name on the ticket is exactly the same as it is in the passport, otherwise airline website will not allow online check-in. Staff at check-in counters may deny check-in and boarding if the name on the ticket deviates from the one in the passport.

Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty, but with limitations as defined by the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920. Due to the treaty regulations, Svalbard is not treated as part of Norway by customs. Flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen start at the international part of the airport Oslo Gardermoen. Norway is part of the Schengen treaty area, Svalbard is not, and this means that you are crossing a Schengen boundary when traveling to or from Svalbard.

The recent tightening has probably little to do with the current debate about Schengen borders, refugees and security. It is more likely that the surprise visit of the Russian vice premier Rogosin in spring made the Norwegian government take these steps. If Norway would legally have been able to deny Rogosin access to Spitsbergen is controversial.

No check-in for flights to Longyearbyen without passport now. This applies also to moose.

Pass control

Polar night – mid November

By now, the polar night has come to the high arctic, the sun remains below the horizon 24 hours a day. Even mid day there is just a bit of twilight, far from sunny brightness.

As so often at this time, Longyearbyen is a bit uncomfy: it has been quite warm recently and the snow had been thawing. As a result, it is slippery, and not just a little bit. You could ice-skate to the supermarket, and a walk to the café without spikes is a bit of an expedition.

This is obviously not the time for long trips out in the field, but that is not necessary. It is about the light, about darkness, which is so much more than just darkness.

And about the quietness and the peace of the arctic at this time of year. Spring and summer are always hectical, there is always so much to do, all the days seem to have 30 hours. During the polar night, people are not so much under stress, everybody is more relaxed, they have time, they meet.

Gallery – Polar night – mid November

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

Many people in Longyearbyen say that the polar night is their favorite season. There is something about it.

Skrova, the Polar Light Centre in Laukvik and Svolvær – 05th November 2015

Today was the day! We started by hiking over the island of Skrova in the most beautiful weather, many went up on top of Skrovafjellet, 285 m above Vestfjord, with a view that is just great.

The same applied to the passage into the port of Svolvær in the early afternoon. Sunset at 3 p.m. Liquid gold over boats, houses and mountains.

The Northern Light Centre in Laukvik on the northern side of the island Austvågøy (which has Svolvær on the southern side) was next on our plan. Rob and Therese from the Netherlands have chosen this lovely, silent spot for their own private northern light institute, with little light pollution and a free view to all directions, especially to the north. Their passion for the aurora polaris (a collective term for the polar light in north and south, does that term actually exist or have I just made it up? I don’t know) is impressive, and so is Rob’s collection of technical instruments, which he is using constantly to make „direct contact with the sun“, as he puts it. And indeed, his short message info service has been very useful over the last couple of days, keeping us updated about solar and magnetic activity and our chances to see northern lights.

Indeed, Rob’s connection to the sun is good and direct enough to prompt a northern light there and then. But maybe he has forgotten to pass the message on also to the weather God, who is promptly pushing some clouds between us and the beloved aurora. But a bit later, during the bus back to Svolvær, we get a splendid northern light show above nice mountain ridges; I guess more than one was thinking about hijacking the bus, stopping instantly and jumping out onto the road with camera and tripod.

Gallery Skrova

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

But that was indeed not necessary. Later that night, we got an impressive and beautiful display of the northern light which could be perfectly seen from Svolvær.

By the way, for those interested in the matter, have a look at these links to sites within my website:

And of course you should visit the Polar Light Centre in Laukvik on the internet or – much better – in real life, in Laukvik.

All in all: the day today was our day, it was important and great! ☺

Trollfjord and Skrova – 04th November 2015

The weather needed still some time to get a bit more friendly, Raftsund was still a rather wet affair. But the famous Trollfjord is always impressive, and so was the Sea eagle show. Three of these majestic birds were circling in the sky! Well, next time I have to bring a longer lense also for the trip to the northern lights 😉

Gallery – Trollfjord and Skrova – 04th November 2015

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

But then it cleared up. After a lovely sunset at the best early to mid afternoon time, we entered the harbour of Skrova, which was quite exciting in twilight, with rocks sticking out of the water to all sides of the ship. And it was to become even more exciting in the evening. Our first northern lights! What a delight, what a relief 🙂

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