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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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.