The Sysselmannen has announced that the compulsory quarantine will be extended until May 18 (18.00 hrs). It may be extended beyond this date if necessary.
This means that everybody who travels to Spitsbergen needs to stay in quarantine for 14 days, regardless of how one gets there and where exactly one arrives.
Health and emergency services might soon be in a difficult situation in case of a Covid-19 outbreak in Spitsbergen, so authorities are taking any further steps with great care. Considerations are currently being made for starting to open the school again and for the celebrations of the Norwegian national day on 17th May. This date was one of the reasons to chose the 18th of May as the minimum duration of the current quarantine regulations.
Applies to all of Spitsbergen: Corona-quarantine (photo composition).
At the same time plans are being made to return back to a – in a very wide sense – “normal” life again in society and economy. Authorities emphasise that this will be a long process that will require great care and may include setbacks. The importance of hygiene- and social distancing rules are highlighted and the public is requested to abstain from travelling to Spitsbergen unless necessary.
There are, as of now, no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Spitsbergen.
Spitsbergen is currently almost completely closed to tourism. Only local inhabitants and Norwegians may come at all, theoretically also Norwegian tourists, but everybody has to stay in quarantine for 14 days unless an exceptional permission is given in special cases. The airline SAS is, however keeping the air traffic up, but there is mention of 10 flight passengers per day in average, and these will hardly be tourists. The airline Norwegian is currently planning to start flying again in June.
Nobody knows when Spitsbergen will be open again for tourists. The further development of the pandemic will be decisive, as you may have guessed, and decisions have to be made on various levels.
Tourists in Longyearbyen: Nobody knows when they will return.
Now Longyearbyen’s mayor (lokalstyreleder) Arild Olsen has told Svalbardposten that he wants to consider opening up for tourism again in July, “possibly limited and we have to accept that it will be only Norwegian tourists, to begin with”, as Olsen says. Limitations in an area that is still remote and does not have large-scale sophisticated medical infrastracture will hardly surprise anyone, but limitations per nationality may rise an eyebrow, considering the Spitsbergen treaty.
But there is obviously still a way to go anyway before any tourists will return to Spitsbergen or other remote destinations.
The Corona-crisis has hit Longyearbyen hard: tourism and service, both major factors for the local economy, have largely collapsed, leading to a high level of unemployment. Many fear losing their livelihood.
But also sectors outside tourism and service are affected: according to Svalbardposten, the mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani AS has reduced the workforce in mine 7 near Longyearbyen by 8 people because the demand for industry coal has collapsed on the international market. These workers have already moved to Sveagruva to take part in the large clean-up that follows the end of coal mining there.
Coal mining in Spitsbergen is hit by the Corona-crisis
(archive image, Svea Nord).
Also a major customer of Svalsat (Kongsberg Satellite Services på Svalbard) has gone bankrupt due to the Corona-crisis, according to the website Highnorthnews: the global communications company Oneweb had the plan to provide the whole Arctic north of 60 degrees of latitude with high-speed, satellite-based internet. 648 satellites should have been part of that project, 74 of which have already been lifted up to the orbit since August last year.
Major ground infrastructure in high latitudes is needed to control the satellites and to transfer data both ways, services that are provided by Svalsat, a company that runs a large park of antennas on Platåberg near the airport in Longyearbyen. Oneweb hat a major contract with Svalsat. A number of antennas dedicated to the Oneweb project has already been built, there was mention of 60 Oneweb antennas in total on Platåberg.
Svalsat near Longyearbyen: also hit by the Corona-crisis.
The future of Oneweb and of the arctic internet project, including the large investments that have already been made, is uncertain.
Svalsat has a relatively small number of employees, but is itself an important customer for many other local companies. Svalsat has a number of other important customers, including large organisations such as ESA and NASA.
The Corona virus has not yet come to Spitsbergen (as far as known at the time of writing). The strict quarantine rules are still in force, they have actually been extended on Friday (17 April) and will now last at least until 01 May, as the Sysselmannen informed.
As for economies all over the world, Longyearbyen is suffering severely from the economical consequences. Many companies and people depend on incomes derived within tourism. Unemployment has risen sharply to levels previously unknown at 78 degrees north.
Everybody has regular expenses and is under pressure to cover them, but some have even higher regular costs and this includes companies with polar dogs. Dogs need food and care even when there are now tourists. Current economical aid by the Norwegian government is amongst others aiming at helping companies with their expenses until May. But the current winter season is now coming to an end, and economically, the 2020 season just never happened, and the next winter season will not come any earlier than early 2021 – if it comes, that is. Companies have said that they will be happy if 2021 brings 60 % of a normal annual income.
Out on tour with dogs near Longyearbyen. Makes seriously happy!
And so does food for the dogs after the tour.
Some of the smaller companies have already appealed for help: Svalbard Husky have an appeal on their website, and Svalbard Villmarksenter have made an appeal in a local social media group, calling for “donations ear-marked dog-food”. Both are local family companies.
If you want to be a sponsor or godparent to a polar dog in Longyearbyen, then you are welcome to get in touch directly with either Svalbards Husky through their webseite (click here), via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or give them a call: +47 784 03 078.
Martin Munck of Green Dog Svalbard, a larger company with 275 dogs, calculates 100,000 kroner per month just for dog food (currently near 8900 Euro). In a conversation with Svalbardposten, he strongly rejects rumours that killing dogs could be an option.
The Corona virus hits economies hard everywhere in the world. Longyearbyen is no exception and the current crisis gives rise to a phenomenon that has so far been almost unknown up there: unemployment. Tourism and the service industry have largely collapsed and several hundred people have lost their jobs. According to official statistics, there were 9 people without jobs in Longyearbyen on 10 March, but already 261 on 23 March – the strongest increase in all of Norway, and the curve is still going up steeply. The actual number is supposed to be higher, because citizens of countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA) can not register as unemployed in Norway.
The fact that unemploymentship has been virtually unknown in Longyearben is not only due to the good economical situation. Actually, recent years have seen the collapse of large parts of the coal mining industry and a lot of jobs were lost in this process. On the other hand, tourism and science have developed positively. But the background is another one, which has to do with the Spitsbergen Treaty which recently became 100 years old: the treaty gives citizens from signatory countries the same individual rights as Norwegians. Everybody can live and work in Longyearbyen without asking for permission.
But this freedom has a price tag: there is no social system that takes care of everybody. Essentially, everybody is responsible to take care of him- or herself. If you can’t finance you life in Spitsbergen, then you have to leave. Five persons have been expelled by the authorities since 2017 because they were not able to support themselves financially. Four out of these five were expelled before 2020, so there is no connection to the recent crisis.
In other words: if you can’t afford to live in Longyearbyen then you are not going to stay long, so there has not been unemployment on any significant level until recently. If you needed public support, then you had to rely on the social systems of your home country, many of which may not support citizens living abroad or only to a degree that will not make much of a difference as Longyearbyen is a very expensive place.
This is, in principle, not going to change: Norway is generally neither obliged nor willing to take responsibility for citizens of third countries who are getting in difficulties in Longyearbyen. On the other hand, the current situation is acute. Longyearbyen has a very international population. There is, for example, a significant number of people from Thailand who came to Longyearbyen years ago to live and work there. Many have typically jobs in restaurants or other service industries that have now collapsed. Many can hardly expect much support from their original home countries, and returning there may also not be an option easily available to everyone as many have given up there homes there years ago, plus the impossibility to travel anywhere these days.
Longyearbyen during the Corona-crisis: dark times, even though it does not get dark anymore in reality and the sun will soon shine 24 hours a day.
So there are many people now in Longyearbyen who don’t have an income. There are estimates of near 300 people. Measures are taken now in Longyearbyen (Lokalstyre) to offer public help to citizens from third countries outside the European Economic Area. These measures come with a time limited, but there is clearly need for action right now. In the future, companies in Longyearbyen may have to install social insurance systems for their non-Norwegian employees, but right now the present situation needs to be dealt with. There have already been private aid appeals for families in difficulties, especially for people who moved to Longyearbyen less than 6 months ago because they are supported only for 20 days in the current Corona crisis package by the Norwegian government. Those who have been in Longyearbyen more than half a year will be supported until 20 June.
Longyearbyen Lokalstyre (community council) has applied for 178.5 million kroner from the Government in Oslo to support the local economy. This may include goods and orders that can be delivered quickly by local companies, financial relief for inhabitants by cutting fees for example for water, power and long-distance heating, all of which is very expensive in Longyearbyen and to compensate for losses expected in the economy of the community. Just the cancellations by large cruise ships for this year will probably cost more than 20 million kroner in harbour fees that will be lost.
Just as anywhere in the world, nobody in Longyearbyen has got an idea when and how the situation will normalise again.
The weather statistics from Longyearbyen have, for years on end, yielded temperatures above the long-term average. This has been the case for 111 months, a series that started in November 2010: since then and until February 2020, there has not been a single month with an average temperature below the long-term statistics.
But March 2020 turned out to be the month that finally breaks up this series of more than 9 years. It is very unlikely to be a new trend, just a cold month between many warmer ones, but still – the monthly average of March 2020 was -16.2°C or half a degree below the long-term average, according to Ketil Isaksen from the Norwegian meteorological institute.
A cold March: fresh ice forming in Adventfjord near Longyearbyen.
Half a degree below average is not exactly an awful lot, but nevertheless Isaksen assumes that the cold winter gives the warming permafrost a little break: because of the thin snow cover, the cold should have penetrated the ground, an effect that should last a while into the summer.
The reference period for the long-term average is 1960-1990. As soon as the current year is over, there will be a new reference period: 1990-2020. This will increase the reference average temperature values because these recent decades have been significantly warmer than the previous ones. Hence, as the new reference value will then be higher, we will, in the future, see more months again with average temperatures below the long-term average: a result of the new statistical base rather then the end of climate change with will keep making the Arctic warmer. This is, based on all current knowledge, not going to change any time soon. The meteorological record from Longyearbyen airport (Svalbard Lufthavn) shows that the temperature has risen by no less than 5.6 degrees since 1961!
Currently, we can at least enjoy the fact that there is a good ice cover in and near Spitsbergen, both fast ice in coastal waters and drift ice, currently reaching as far south as Bear Island (Bjørnøya)!