Extensive avalanche protection measures are likely to change Longyearbyen’s cityscape over the next few years. This was the result of a study published by the NVE (Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate) in mid-March. Thereafter, the buildings in the eastern part of Longyearbyen are classified as much more endangered than previously assumed.
Avalanche danger zones mark the possibilities of an avalanche once in 100 years (red zone), once in 1000 years (orange zone) and once in 5000 years (yellow zone). Picture: NVE
According to the NVE report, the danger zone reaches almost to the center, so that a number of houses with a total of around 140 flats may need to be demolished. As a protective measure, it is recommended to build a 10 to 15 meter high barrier. Where exactly the barriere should stand and which houses are affected in detail by the demolition, is still unclear. The barriere will probably extend across way 230 and 228 to Hilmar Rekstens Vei.
In addition, at the foot of Mount Sukertoppen, several “brake cones” are to be installed, which can reduce the energy of an avalanche. The “brake cones” should each be ten meters wide and eight meters high. Together with the construction of new houses as well as a planned protection against mudslides from Vannledningsdalen, the construction work will probably cost at least 100 million Norwegian kroner (about 10 million Euros). These measures should be implemented within the next three years.
In recent years, several houses in Longyearbyen have been hit by avalanches. In December 2015, a catastrophic avalanche from Mount Sukkertoppen hit 11 buildings. A 42-year-old father and a two-year-old girl died. The disaster had a huge impact on the inhabitants of Longyearbyen and forced authorities and politics to act, but reactions on the various political levels from Longyearbyen to Oslo are slow. This is frustrating people locally, who have to live with month-long evacuations.
In the avalanche disaster on 19.12.2015 houses were moved up to 80 meters.
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Researchers from Tromsø have found siloxanes in the liver of fish caught off Spitsbergen. Siloxanes are components in silicone products and are used to make cosmetics smooth and supple. Siloxanes are found in almost all cosmetics and skincare products. When washing or showering siloxanes get into the water circle and eventually end up in the sea. Even for humans, these substances can be dangerous. Studies indicate that the D4 variant of siloxane may affect fertility.
The return of the sun to Longyearbyen (solfest = sun festival) was celebrated on Thursday (08 March) in good tradition. On this day, the sun returns to Lognyearbyen after several months of polar night. Just for a few moments and only if the weather is good, but that is enough reason to celebrate with several days of cultural events. This time, there was not a cloud on the sky, so everybody could enjoy the rays of the sun on the skin!
Sun festival in Longyearbyen
Meanwhile, some “old boys” around Robert Hermansen, former boss of the mining company Store Norske, try to come up with a plan to put the already abandoned coal mine settlement of Sveagruva back to life and work. Politicians have already said that they don’t appreciate such plans. For sure, there will be a lot of talking still about Sveagruva in the future.
Elsewhere, suitcases (or rather rucksacks) are being packed: on Sunday (11 March), we will start sailing in Patagonia with SY Anne-Margaretha. This means of course that the travel blog will start again soon! Please visit antarctic.eu for the southern chapters of my travel blog.
“Patagonia under sail with SY Anne-Margaretha: starting on Sunday. The travel blog will then also start soon on antarctic.eu.
Longyearbyen is by many means a special place. The little town with just over 2,500 inhabitants attracts many on a seasonal or short-term basis. These people are working in tourism, but also in the building industry or in small trade or for any company that needs labour force for shorter periods. Many companies are currently facing problems to find housing for their employees, such as the tourism industry which has a very busy time now as the important winter season is in full swing. Larger companies as well as institutions such as the university (UNIS)/Polar Institute, Sysselmannen and local administration have got considerable numbers of flats for their employees to be able to compete with employers on the mainland.
Recent years have seen significant price increases for buying and renting, which has to a large degree to do with evacuations because of the avalanche danger. These evacuations have become a regular and long-lasting phenomenon now that is affecting whole streets.
As in many other places in the world, there are those owners who have dollar signs blinking in their eyes. A number of flats are rented out through Airbnb, mostly to tourists on a short-term basis. This is certainly an attractive offer for the users and it includes flats which are used by companies for their employees when there is demand, and nothing is wrong about offering these flats on the market while they are not used. But there are also those flats which are now exclusively used for Airbnb and thus not available for the local housing market anymore, a situation that is met with growing criticism both locally and elsewhere.
One of the larger owners in Longyearbyen, the mainland company Longyearbyen Boligeiendom, bought seven houses with a larger number of flats in 2012 for a price of 37 million NOK (about 4.8 million Euro back then). Rentals were soon increased by 45 %. Now, Longyearbyen Boligeiendom has announced to sell five of their seven houses with a total of 84 flats, aiming at a price of 77 million NOK. The company has said to have spent many millions on renovation, but this might well be (over)balanced by the income from rentals. Longyearbyen Boligeiendom might well leave the local market with a profit not far form 100 % of the original investment after six years. The two houses that are not (yet) for sale are in an area officially exposed to an avalanche risk, and a potential sale will not be considered before the slopes have not been secured technically. Currently, these houses would be hard to sell, if not impossible.
No place to stay in Longyearbyen these days? Tough luck, indeed!
On top of all this came the news that the local administration keeps a number of flats vacant. This is obviously controversial at times of a stressed housing market. It is about 24 flats in way 222 which have been vacant for months now. Large investments were made actually just last year to brush these flats up. Representatives of the local adminstration said that it was decided against renting these flats out even on shorter contracts as long as final decisions have not been made regarding the avalanche situation and securing the dangerous slopes of Sukkertoppen, a process that has already been going on for years. In addition comes that further investments need to be made to renew the foundations of the buildings. Nevertheless, it is said that the flats could be rented out and used and it seems to be a political decision to do so or not. Leaving 24 flats vacant for months, possibly years, in times of a housing market under pressure is not necessarily a decision that is met with great sympathy, while some a desparately looking for housing for themselves or their employees.