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Yearly Archives: 2016 − News & Stories


Evacuation of Nybyen lifted

Yesterday’s evacuation of Longyearbyen’s upper area Nybyen is lifted. Also the road between the school and Nybyen is open again.

Sysselmannen and other authorities (NVE) have investigated the snow on the slopes above Nybyen and other parts of Longyearbyen which are potentially exposed to avalanches. It is currently officially considered that there is no risk of major avalanches that might hit buildings.

There are no reports about major damage from last night’s storm including avalanches. A post box was blown away and a dog was covered by snow in the dogyard, but it was found and dug out in good condition.

The Sysselmannen reminds everybody that the avalanche risk for Longyearbyens surroundings is still considered high and to be accordingly careful with any outside activities.

Longyearbyen’s upper area Nybyen: the recent evacuation because of avalanche risk is lifted.

Longyearbyen avalanche risk: Nybyen evacuation

Source: Sysselmannen

Avalanche danger: Nybyen evacuated

The weather forecast for Longyearbyen says strong wind increasing to full storm during the night to Thursday, combined with strong snowfall. This weather situation means an increased risk of snow avalanches. The current avalanche warning is level 4 on a scale of 5 levels. As a consequence, the Sysselmannen has decided to evacuate Nybyen.

Smaller snow avalanches on the slopes surrounding Longyearbyen are exepcted, but so far no major events that may cause damage damage to buildings. Nybyen, Longyearbyen’s upper part, is faced with the greatest risk, hence the precautionary evacuation. Nybyen is mainly used for student housing and guest houses, but there are also a few flats where locals live. Most students are currently at home elsewhere and not in Longyearbyen. The road to Nybyen is closed from the school. It is strongly advised to resign from any field trips.

Other parts of Longyearben are currently not concerned by evacuations. This includes the residential area near Sukkertoppen, which was hit by an avalanche in December 2015 with lethal consequences. The development will be constantly monitored by the Sysselmannen and relevant institutions.

Longyearbyen during the polar night. The steep slopes surrounding the settlement can produce avalanches.

Longyearbyen avalanche risk

Source: Sysselmannen

No Christmas gifts? Maybe it’s the reindeer…

If Santa Claus does not bring gifts on Saturday, that could also be due to his reindeer. Whether they can pull the sledge heavily packed with gifts is questionable. Because the reindeer on Spitzbergen are getting thinner!

The subspecies – the Svalbard reindeer – is already somewhat smaller than their relatives on the mainland. 135 animals were weighed by the researcher Steve “Mister Reindeer” Albon from the James Hutton Institute in Scotland since 1994 every year in April. Rudolph Normalrentier lost seven kilos during this period. Reason is that the animals find less to eat in winter.

Hungry: Svalbard reindeer

And who is to blame? Most likely once again climate change. Because of higher average temperatures it rains on Svalbard more often than it snows. The rain freezes and forms an ice layer on top of the snow. This makes it more difficult for the reindeer to come to the lichens, of which they mainly live in the winter.

Nevertheless, this does not seem to affect the population: Since the 1990s, the number of Svalbard reindeer has risen from 800 to 1400 in the Adventdalen. What actually sounds like good news could lead to a famine among the reindeer in the long term as the competition for food increases.

We keep our fingers crossed for Santa Claus and his reindeer, and in any case wish everybody a Merry Christmas!

Sources: TV2, Dagens Næringsliv

Head of northpole expedition “Arktika 2.0” must go to court

A french skipper, who is accused of having violated several of the strict requirements for the protection of the environment on Svalbard, is to pay a fine of 25,000 crowns (€ 2750). The two French adventurers Gilles and Alexia Elkaim were actually on the way to the North Pole in September and October this year, but had to reverse due to bad weather conditions.

The fact that they sought protection from a storm in one of the most severely protected areas of Svalbard with their sailor “Arktika” could now be their doom. The 56-year-old skipper does not want to pay the penalty. The case will then be heard before the District Court (Tingrett) Nord-Troms on February 23rd and 24th.

The adventurers are accused of having anchored in the area around Kong Karls Land in the east of Svalbard within the protection zone for three days, and having entered the island of Svenskøya with their seven huskies. Svenskøya is subject to rigorous rules of protection: it is forbidden to approach the island more than 500 meters, and entering is forbidden all year round. The skipper is also supposed to have illegally imported his dogs to Svalbard and to not have approved permission for his expedition. In large parts of Svalbard, there is a requirement for individual tourists.

Polar bear in the Duvefjorden, where the French expedition anchored. The Duvefjord is located in the Nordaust-Svalbard Nature Reserve and is also protected as a scientific reference area.

Often such disputes are a question of the point of view. Gilles Elkaim describes the case on 23rd November from his perspective on his Facebook page: he asked the Sysselmannen for authorization to overwinter on October 8th, but did not receive a response for days. Elkaim claims also to have requested for permission to import the dogs already in July – without reaction. The “Arktika” had considerable problems with the engine and a water pump at the beginning of October and could therefore not continue. He wanted to get the ship safe from an emergency. To get the boat out of the protected area, the Sysselmanns decided to tow the “Arktika” and the crew to Longyearbyen on October 13th. An action with consequences. The expedition has been terminated.

In the Duvefjorden and on the Svenskøya anchored the Arctic before being towed to Longyearbyen​.

Homepage of the expedition
Source: Svalbardposten, iFinnmark.no

Hauke Trinks is dead

Hauke Trinks was not only a scientist, but also a Spitsbergen adventurer. He wintered three times in remote places northern Svalbard. Born on Februar 19, 1943 in Berlin, he became president of the Technical University in Hamburg-Harburg. After finishing his scientific career, he had more time for his passions, sailing and adventure.

In 1999-2000, Hauke Trinks wintered on his own on his yacht Mesuf in Mushamna in Woodfjord. As a scientist, he wanted to find evidence for his theory of an origin of life in the ice. Two more winterings followed, in 2003-2004 in the old station in Kinnvika on Nordaustland and in 2010-2011 once again on his boat in Mushamna. On these two later winterings, he was accompanied by Marie Tiéche. Hauke Trinks told his arctic adventure stories in several books and documentations to a wider public. There has hardly been a visit to Woodfjord since without the question coming up: “isn’t it somehwere around here where Hauke Trinks wintered?”

It is up to dedicated scientists to judge his efforts and results as a reseracher. Opinions regarding this may be varied, but that does not matter now and here. As a person, Hauke Trinks easily felt at home in Spitsbergen, something that was very evident during several meetings this author had with Trinks in Mushamna, Kinnvika and Longyearbyen. To share just one of these unforgettable moments: when we approached Kinnvika with MV Professor Multanovskiy in the late summer of 2003, when Hauke and Marie were just settling down there for there wintering, they quickly jumped into their Zodiac and took off to disappear deep in Murchisonfjord as they saw us coming. But as we were about to leave, they returned quickly and Hauke, being a good narrator, was happy to share stories and knowledge with us.

Hauke Trinks kept a strong connection to the north and settled down in his new second home on Utsira in Norway. He died in December 2016 at the age of 73 in Spitsbergen or on Utsira, the sources are not yet quite clear about this. We will keep fond memories of him as one of few adventurers who, in recent years, ventured on month-long expeditions on his own or with just one more person into the polar night and the ice, following a scientific quest, and as a unique, very likeable character.

Hauke Trinks and Marie Tièche in Kinnvika, 2003.

Hauke Trinks und Marie Tiéche, Kinnvika

Sources: Press release Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg, Hamburger Abendblatt

The avalanche risk report for Longyearbyen has been published

The avalanche risk report for Longyearbyen is now available. After the deadly avalanche on December 19, 2015 and the precautionary evacuations in early November 2016, the report has been awaited with eagerness. It was compiled by NVE (Norges vassdrags- og energidirektorat, Norwegian directorate for waters and energy within the ministry for oil and energy) and it is based on maps and aerial photography, terrain modeling, climate analysis, historical experience, on-site investigations and computer modeling.

For the public, the results are more relevant than the methodical background. The report includes a map that shows endangered areas in three colours. The areas where damage caused by avalanches happens with a likelihood of 1:5000 per year is marked in yellow. In other words: damage caused by an avalanche has to be expected every 5000 years – statistically, that is.

Areas marked orange have an annual risk of 1:000 or avalanche damage every 1000 years. And then there are the red areas, where an avalanche has to be expected once per century. The risk of a devastating event is one per cent every year.

This risk assessment includes snow and slush avalanches, mudslides and rockfalls. Some parts of Longyearbyen are “only” exposed to particular hazards within this list. This can mean that different areas may be exposed to danger at different seasons or in different weather situations.

A first look at the avalanche risk map makes the viewer take a breath. No less than 154 flats as well as two guest houses are inside the red zone. These addresses are faced with an annual risk of 1:100 of a potentially catastrophic event, causing great damage and putting life at risk.

The obvious question is how Longyearbyen will deal with this situation. it is clear that the option to move all the houses concerned quickly to safe areas is not available. That will neither technically nor politically and financially be possible, and there is the issue of space being available in sufficient quantities in Longyearbyen (remember, it is a valley, and there are rivers, slopes and a fjord not far from wherever you are). As a result, the houses will remain wherever they are at least for quite a while.

Longyearbyen will obviously be developed in areas that are not endangered, making sure as much housing as possible will be available in these areas in the future. Securing dangerous slopes with technical will also be discussed.

For the time being, there is no other option but keeping the avalanche warning system upright and evacuate endangered addresses in risk situations.

It was emphasized that there is a number of communities in Norway who are in similar situations. In the end, it is normality in a mountain and winter country such as Norway, and communities will naturally have to deal with that. This has recently been ignored in Longyearbyen. A high price was paid in December 2015.

It can be taken for granted that politicians from the local administration (Lokalstyre) in Longyearbyen to relevant departments in Oslo have got some homework to do. Meanwhile, inhabitants of many houses in Longyearbyen will have to live with temporary evacuations on a short warning during avalanche risk weather.

Avalanche risk map for Longyearbyen (NVE).

Avalanche risk map Longyearbyen

Direct link to the avalanche report and direct link to the avalanche risk map.

Sources: Sysselmannen, Svalbardposten

Polar bear shot on Prins Karls Forland: fine for the shooter

A polar bear was shot by a Russian scientist on August 09 on Prins Karls Forland (see Polar bear shot on Prins Karls Forland). The circumstances seemed doubtful: it appears that no serious attempt had been made to scare the polar bear away with non-lethal methods and the lethal shot was fired at a very early stage of the encounter from the large distance of 130 (!) metres. Additionally, the authorities were only informed about the incident the following day and not immediately, as required.

It was a two year old female, weighing 155 kg. The animal had been marked before.

The case was handed over by the Sysselmannen in Longyearbyen to the public prosecutor in Tromsø. The reason may have been the juridical and public character of the case. When considering the sparse information that is available, one may quickly be tempted to conclude that the killing may have been a criminal offense.

Now the verdict from Tromsø is there: the scientist who had fired the deadly shot is condemned to pay a fine of NOK 15000,- (ca. 1670 Euro). The man has accepted the fine, hence the verdict is effective.

Charges against the other three persons who were in the camp together with the shooter have been dismissed.

The bay Selvågen a few days before the polar bear was shot on August 09.

Spitsbergen: Selvågen

Source: Sysselmannen

Autumn in Spitsbergen breaks all records

Even though it is gradually getting colder in Spitsbergen, the news about record-breaking temperatures in the Arctic are not stopping. For six years, Svalbard has been significantly warmer than usual, and the temperatures in November were up to 10 degrees above average.

The consequences of some days of extreme weather with strong precipitation in November: At least 50 landslides and avalanches were observed, parts of Longyearbyen even had to be evacuated.

Climate change also threatens the shores, houses and huts. The sea has eroded the unfrozen, loose ground, which in November should have been hard by frost. The hut on the left in the picture had to be left for safety reasons. Image: ©Rolf Stange

climate changes threatens houses and cottages

Also in other parts of the Arctic it becomes obvious: It is quickly getting warmer than before. This applies both to the temperatures on land as well as in the sea, where up to four or even five (Isfjord, near Longyearbyen) degrees more have been measured. In some Arctic regions, the air temperature was actually 20 degrees above average (north pole).

And never before has there been so little ice on land as on the sea. Tricky: ice reflects the sun’s radiation. The less ice floats on the sea, the darker the sea surface and the more sunshine is absorbed. Researchers are worried that the summer sea ice might disappear completely from the Arctic.

In Longyearbyen, nobody is currently expecting a good ice winter with frozen fjords for the 2017 season.

On Spitsbergen it has been observed for some time that the permafrost ground is getting warmer and begins to thaw. This can lead to settlement damages on buildings, as they are currently already observed in several cases in Longyearbyen. In other Arctic regions such as Siberia, the thawing of permafrost ground in marshy areas, which have stored a lot of organic material in the cold soil, also leads to the release of large amounts of the highly aggressive greenhouse gas methane, which further stimulates climate change.

Climate change is no longer a scary newspaper message on Spitsbergen, but an everyday experience with effects on peoples’ daily life. More warm winters, avalanches and landslides and evacuations have to be expected in Spitsbergen in the coming years.

Sources: NRK, Climate Home

Longyearbreen – 20th November 2016

I may have mentioned it before: the polar night is not exactly the time for frequent long field trips. You can easily enjoy the nice light and atmosphere within Longyearbyen. And if there is a northern light there are good places directly next to town. If you want some exercise, then the sportshall or running shoes are good options. At least as long as there is not enough snow for ski or snow shoes.

And when you do venture on a hike in the darkness, then the terrain does currently not make it easy. Large parts of the surface in the valleys are iced over and very slippery. Which is hard to see in darkness. So you have to walk slowly and carefully.

All this makes it even more interesting to imagine how it was when Alfred Ritscher came on foot down from Wijdefjord to Longyearbyen, which was called Longyear City back then. In December 1912, Ritscher made an unbelievable hike under the greatest difficulties and dangers you can imagine. He did not have a detailed map, he did not know the terrain, he did not have a headlamp which he could switch on whenever needed …

Gallery – Longyearbreen – 20th November 2016

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

Well, we did not want to go that far. We were happy with a walk up to Longyearbreen. That is a short and (relatively) easy walk when you have light and normal conditions, I have done it with friends together with their little children. But in the polar night, it is interesting. And beautiful!

Extreme weather in Spitsbergen: avalanches in Nordenskiöld Land

The extreme weather with strong precipitation last week has triggered more than “just” a few landslides near Longyearbyen. Damage was limited to minor material loss at a dog yard near Longyearbyen (the first one at the road into Adventdalen). More than 200 people had been evacuated from their homes for several days in case of a major event.

Satellite images have now shown that more than 50 landslides were triggered by the rainfalls just in Nordenskiöld Land between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. This shows the lack of stability of the terrain during periods with strong rain.

Scientists expect extreme weather events like last week’s with very strong precipitation to increase in frequency and magnitude. Rainfalls of 50 mm within 24 hours or even more are, so far, untypical for the high arctic (“polar desert”). This means that geomorphological slope dynamics including landslides, snow- and slush avalanches and rockfalls.

This will be important knowledge both for arctic outdoor enthusiasts and city planners. Last year, 2 persons died in their homes in a snow avalanche that destroyed several residential houses in Longyearbyen.

Recent satellite image of Nordenskiöld Land in Spitsbergen showing Landslides triggered by last week’s rainfalls. Image: Copernicus/ESA.

Extreme weather: recent avalanches landslides in Spitsbergen

Sources: bygg.no, UiO

Longyearbyen – 16th November, 2016

Again, the blog had to wait for a wile. Busy times, even in the polar night. You have to be ready to get out, to look for, enjoy and photograph northern lights at any time. Hard life. There is no snow, unfortunately. Hard to believe, here in Spitsbergen in mid November! But the aurora is beautiful, even without snow. And lady aurora has a lot of ardent worshippers. They meet out there when she is dancing on the sky and later on the internet, sharing and enjoying the results.

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

And of course people are setting their minds for Christmas up here as well. The second half of November is the time for the traditional julemesse, the Christmas market. Without hot spiced wine – we are in Norway, and the Norwegians would never touch alcohol, would they? Well … right … But there is an amazingly high proportion of locally made products, from self-made stollen („bestemors tyske julebrød“, meaning „grandma’s German Christmas bread“ 🙂 ) through photos and various knitted materials to Wolfi’s lovely cutting boards, made by master craftsman Wolfgang Zach in his workshop between the fjord and Sysselmannen. The arctic under your breakfast bread, represented by polar bear, whale, walrus or Spitsbergen. Maybe I have to export a box and make it available, what do you think?

Vestpynten – 11th November, 2016

The polar night – a beautiful time in the high north. The season of the blue light. Northern lights, cold, snow, silence, time for yourself, for friends, for everything you want.

That’s what you might think.

Reality is different. Temperatures around zero and hardly much below. No snow, but a lot of wind and rain, recently. The wind was turning Isfjord’s calm waters into something rather wild and furious, for a while, and the surf was smashing against the shoreline.

Not good for the unfrozen land. There is fjord now where there used to be the shore, and there is shore now where there used to be tundra. You don’t sleep in peace anymore where you could live a good life in a cosy hut just last week.

The cold coast isn’t that cold anymore, and it is an ongoing process. Those days now when an artificially upheated and stimulated nature got closer to man were the time when in the US – no, let’s not talk about it. It is just no fun at the time being, looking at the large events around the globe.

Rather than discussing politics, action was required. A hut needed to be emptied from everything that had been needed for a family’s life, bed and books, furniture and firewood had to be moved away from the coast. Next to everything else that was going on, the arctic bookwriting workshop was quite busy at the same time and so on and so forth.

Gallery – Vestpynten – 11th November, 2016

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

It would have been a nice job if it had not been a bit sad. Physical work next to the fjord. There is still a bit of light around noon, you can just about imagine the mountains on the northern side of Isfjord. And the mountains on the other side of Adventfjord are shining through the darkness with all their beauty and character.

Extreme weather in Longyearbyen (III): Evakuations cancelled

All evacuations in Longyearbyen have been cancelled. The weather is calm and the authorities have estimated the situation as safe. Slopes that may produce landslides will be monitored.

The way west of the camping site towards Bjørndalen remains closed. This makes an area inaccessible where many locals have leisure huts. It is possible to walk to the huts, which is, however, not practicable for many purposes. The huts will only be accessible again by regular means when the road is opened again or the terrain is suitable for snow mobile traffic. Neither of these options is currently in view.

Some of the huts in this area will have to be moved or abandoned. It has happened before in Spitsbergen that huts endangered by coastal erosion where moved. The most famous example is Fredheim, the famous trapper hut in Tempelfjord, which was moved away from the coast in 2015. One or the other hut between Vestpynten (near the camping site) and Bjørndalen will receive a similar treatment and be moved at least to the other side of the road.

When and how the way itself will be secured or relocated is another and currently unanswered question.

The famous trapper hut at Fredheim was moved away from the coast in spring 2015 due to coastal erosion.

Fredheim, Tempelfjord

Source: Sysselmannen, local gossip.

Extreme weather in Longyearbyen (II): evacuation held upright

Extreme weather with strong winds and a lot of precipitation has held Longyearbyen in awe during the night from Monday to Tuesday. There was a fear for landslides from steep and largely water-saturated slopes near areas with living houses and infrastructures. Several roads were closed and a number of houses were evacuated Monday afternoon.

There have been several minor landslides, but no damage except from comparatively minor damage to a dog yard near Longyearbyen. The dogs in kennels at risk had been moved to other kennels before, all animals are well and safe.

On the coast between the camping site and Bjørndalen, coastal erosion is increasing due to high water and surf on unfrozen ground. Several cabins and parts of the roads are at risk and likely to get lost on the long term.

The administration, however, has decided to keep evacuations upright until further notice. Slope processes take their time, and there is still a risk of landslides. People are asked to stay away from steep terrain.

Closed and evacuated parts of Longyearbyen due to extreme weather

The marked parts of Longyearbyen are currently (November 7) closed due to the extreme weather. Map © Sysselmannen på Svalbard.

Source: Sysselmannen

Extreme weather in Spitsbergen: Longyearbyen partly evacuated

October had already been quite extreme in Spitsbergen, with unusually warm temperatures and a lot of rain. There were mudflows from Platåberg across the road between the church and Huset, the road was temporarily closed.

Now it is getting worse: up to 50 mm precipitation or even more are expected during the night from Monday (November 7) to Tuesday. Below 500 m altitude the precipitation is expected to fall as rain. Several roads in and near Longyearbyen are closed and houses in several roads are evacuated because of the risk of avalanches.

The Sysselmannen has issued several warnings. Amongst others, people are requested to stay away from steep terrain and from old buildings such as mines and parts of the old coal cablecar, which may collapse in extreme winds.

The danger of snow avalanches in higher terrain is high (stage 4).

The weather is expected to calm down Tuesday morning. Fingers crossed all goes well until then.

P.S. Personal remark for friends of the author: our home in Longyearbyen is not in the concerned area.

Closed and evacuated parts of Longyearbyen due to extreme weather

The marked parts of Longyearbyen are currently (November 7) closed due to the extreme weather. Map © Sysselmannen på Svalbard.

Source: Sysselmannen

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