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).
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).