A first report has been published that sheds some light on the tragic avalanche accident that happened on 20 February on Fridtjovbreen. The report is written by a group of people from the Arctic Safety Centre at UNIS, the avalanche group of the local Red Cross and local avalanche observers of the Norwegian avalanche warning system, varsom.no; it was published on varsom.no. It is not a report by the Sysselmannen or other legal or governmental authority and it does not include a legal assessment. The point of the report is to understand the accident and to draw conclusions to improve safety out in the field.
On 20 February, a group of 7, including two guides from the Russian Arctic Travel Company Grumant, left Barentsburg, heading for the glacier front of Fridtjovbreen, south of Barentsburg in Van Mijenfjord. The group made a stop at the southeastern slope of Marcussenfjellet on the higher part of Fridtovbreen to visit a meltwater cave. The cave is very close to the steep slope of Marcussenfjellet and a terrain depression between the cave and the mountain was used to park the snow mobiles. The first three snow mobiles had already stopped when the avalanche went down. Two persons were completely covered by the snow masses and two others partly. The three remaining persons were not caught by the avalanche.
The volume of the avalanche is estimated to have been near 10,000 cubic metres, the collapsed snow area on the slope was 13,000 square metres.
The two persons who were completely under snow died. According to an official press release (Sysselmannen), the two victims were Sascha Brandt (39) and Magdalena Katarina Zakrzewski (40), both from Germany.
One of the two victims was covered by half a metre of snow. This person was dug out after 20 minutes. The other one was under two metres of snow. In this case, it took one hour. The guides and other group members used avalanche probes and snow shovels to recover the victims.
The group did not have any avalanche transceivers/avalanche beacons.
Alarming the rescue forces took time because the satellite phone that the group was equipped with was on one of the snow mobiles that were covered with snow (there is no mobile phone coverage in this area). Finally, the second guide could use an InReach to send a message to Barentsburg, from where the Sysselmannen in Longyearbyen was informed. The rescue helicopter could not land on location due to poor weather. It took two hours from the emergency call and until the rescue forces arrived. The doctor who came as part of the rescue team could only declare the two victims dead.
Beautiful, but also dangerous: mountain slope at Fridtjovbreen
Snowfall, wind and fluctuating temperatures during the weeks before the accident had contributed to the general avalanche risk: several layers of firn with poor bonding capabilities were under a layer of fresh, wind-blown snow. The Norwegian avalanche warning service (varsom.no, link above) had issued a level 2 warning (moderate risk; the highest level is 4).
One of the conclusions of the reports is that the presence of the group, with the impact of the snow mobiles on the snow, had triggered the avalanche.
As general recommendations, the report points out that all members of a snow mobile group should have avalanche equipment (specifically avalanche transceivers/beacons, snow shovel, avalanche probe) and everybody should be trained in the use of the equipment. Ideally, this should also be the case for tours in easy, open terrain, where avalanche-prone slopes can be kept at a safe distance, according to the report. But it is especially important for tours in complex terrain, closer to avalanche-prone slopes. The terrain of the tour from Barentsburg to the front of Fridtjovbreen is generally easy and in open terrain, but things are different for the deviation from the common route to the ice cave close to Marcussenfjellet.
As mentioned: the report in question is an evaluation of the incident by avalanche experts with local knowledge and not a legal assessment. This will be made by Norwegian authorities and it is currently still in process and not yet published.
It is really not a surprise, but now it is official: our Spitsbergen voyage with Antigua in July is cancelled for reasons that will hardly require an explanation. The participants who are booked on this voyage will be contacted soonest by the Geographischen Reisegesellschaft.
With Antigua in Spitsbergen: won’t happen in July 2020.
I have to admit that this is a bit emotional. The thought of all the arctic soulfood that is lost this year can bring more than just a bit of water to one’s eyes. Certainly to mine, at least. This summers’ first, early season trip in Spitsbergen on Antigua would be happening right now. Still a lot of snow and ice up north. But in real life, Antigua is about as far away from Spitsbergen as most of you readers will be. A few weeks ago, on the trip up from mainland Norway to Spitsbergen, we might have seen Bear Island as we haven’t seen it at all in recent years: with dense ice packed all round the shores! We can only imagine how good that might have been. Sad. I am sure that I can honestly think and write that on behalf of all passengers and crew.
Beyond all the good experience that is now lost, you may imagine that this is also a bit of a tough blow economically. In this context, I may mention that my Spitsbergen online shop has never been closed and it will remain open and accessible at any time and you can find a lot of good stuff there to travel the Arctic without leaving the sofa! Next to the famous Spitsbergen bible, there is the less famous, but maybe even more beautiful photo book with the aerial photos or, with the driftwood picture frames and the kitchen slats, a real piece of Spitsbergen on the wall or the kitchen table, respectively, to mention just a few.
Generally, tourism is starting up slowly again in Spitsbergen. Emphasize “slowly”. But this, again, will hardly come as a surprise: so far, only tourists from mainland Norway can visit Spitsbergen. Danish tourists will be the next ones who will be allowed in from 15 June. The Norwegian government has announced to make a statement regarding visitors from “near-by European countries” until 20 July. So, stay tuned.
Anyway, ship-based travelling over several days is so far excluded and it is announced that it will take “more time” (without further specification) until this kind of travelling can take place again.
Unemployment has reached levels unheard of in Longyearbyen before during the Corona crisis and it remains high: currently, 344 persons have registered as unemployed (completely or partly) with NAV (Arbeids- og velferdsforvaltningen, the Norwegian authority for unemployment and social security office), according to Svalbardposten.
Much more dangerous than polar bears: the Corona-virus.
kills people and jobs all over the world (photo composition).
That is only 6 less than during the previous week, in spite of preprarations and bookings having started for the first tourists from mainland Norway who are expected to return to Spitsbergen from 01 June.
The high unemployment level causes great problems for many. Social welfare from Norway for citizens of countries outside EEA (European Economic Area) is limited until 20 June. After that, the only help that citizens of such countries may get is a subsidy to their travel expenses on the journey to their country of origin.
Because of the Spitsbergen Treaty, there is almost complete liberality of access, stay and work, but in exchange, there is no social security by Norway for non-Norwegian citizens.
Unemployment has gone through the roof in Longyearbyen during the Corona pandemic and many have come into financial troubles. Only Norwegian citizens are eligible for support from the Norwegian public welfare system because of the conditions of the Spitsbergen Treaty. Others have to take care of themselves or they have to ask for support in their home countries.
Nevertheless, the Norwegian government had stepped in and offered public help for citizens of third countries in Longyearbyen to prevent a social crisis. This programme will, however, cease on 20 June and the government in Oslo does not consider to extend it, despite such demands being raised in the discussion in Longyearbyen. Instead, the government wants to offer financial help with travel expenses to those who want to leave and return to their home countries, according to a press release by minister of justice Monica Mæland..
Tourists and locals enjoying the sunshine in Longyearbyen:
this is what everybody is hoping for from 01 June.
Politicians, companies and many individuals in Longyearbyen hope that not many will have to make use of this offer from the government. Tourists from mainland Norway can come to Spitsbergen again from 01 June and bookings have started to come in. Some tour operators have told Svalbardposten that they are currently happy with the development of bookings. Still, the majority of employees are at home without work, and some have already left Longyearbyen. But for many who come from countries further away such as Thailand, getting to their home countries would be very difficult because of current travel restrictions.
In the end, it will of course be the development of the Corona pandemic that will control the development: so far, there is no case of Corona confirmed in Longyearbyen. Nobody can tell how long this will last and what will happen then.
The quarantine regulations for Spitsbergen are about to be phased out for locals and tourists. To start with, the quarantine will be disestablished for locals from today (Friday, 15 May) 1800. This will include private guests and visitors who are coming for professional reasons, including scientists, according to a press release from the Sysselmannen. The regulations in detail as issued by the Sysselmannen can be found here. Private guests are defined as closely related family members by Minister of Justice Monica Mæland.
About to be eased: Corona quarantine on Spitsbergen: (photo composition).
Travellers coming for work purposes shall be allowed to come to Svalbard without quarantine from 01 June.
“Leisure visitors” – tourists, in other words – from Scandinavian countries (“Norden”) can come from 15 June without having to stay in quarantine.
(*in an earlier version of this text, it said “Minister for Economic Affairs”. This was not correct. Monica Mæland is, of course, Minister of Justice and emergency services).
Hygiene and health safety plans which are accepted by authorities will be required for any organized travelling.
The Sysselmannen emphasizes that it will not be a quick and full return back to what it used to be, but a step-wise approach to a new kind of normality. Limiting the total number of tourists in Spitsbergen is in consideration, and it is said that it will still take “some time” before cruises over several days can take place again.
Generally, the Norwegian government does not recommend international holidays until at least middle of August.
Marine biologists have for the first time made a complete census of Beluga whales in Spitsbergen to get a precise estimate of the population. The result was made available on Researchgate in February.
The scientists around the Norwegian marine biologist Christian Lydersen have made aerial surveys of the coastlines of almost all islands in Svalbard. Additionally, they have covered the open water areas of the large fjords on the west coast and individual transects out towards the open sea to get an overview as complete as possible.
Beluga whale in Dicksonfjord. Large groups are very difficult to count. There is only one in the picture, but how many did we see within 5 km or so around it? Dozens? Hundreds?
The result is indeed surprising: 22 groups with a total of 265 animals were sighted. Statistical calculations result in a population estimate of 549 White whales for the whole Spitsbergen archipelago (95 % confidence interval: 436-723).
There are, of course, remaining uncertainties. More animals than estimated may have remained invisible during the survey. But even if you increase the result based on a higher estimate of unseen individuals, it remains surprisingly low. Until now, all there was was rough estimates based on observations which were more punctual in space and time. These may have been corrupted by the migrational behaviour of White whales, which often seem to circle around in certain areas for a while, giving an observer who remains in one place on the coast the impression that one group is moving through after the other.
It is also so far unknown if there is a connection to Beluga whales in Frans Josefs Land (Russian Arctic). If Spitsbergen and Frans Josefs Land share a population, as is the case with polar bears and walruses, then it would again be a completely different picture. But the few data that are available from tracking Beluga whales do not support this, but it can certainly too early to exclude this hypothesis.
Opening Spitsbergen for tourists again in the Corona crisis is still work in process. Negotiations supposed to result in a careful are going in between the industry and various authorities. Tourism representatives had expressed their hope to get a date already on Friday or at least on Monday (11 May), but this has obviously not yet happened. Some tour operators hope to re-start their business from 01 of June.
Applies to all of Spitsbergen and will stay for a while:
Corona-quarantine (photo composition).
Especially travellers from outside Norway should take their time, observe the further development and read the small print. It appears likely – official confirmation is pending – that Norway will keep a quarantine for everybody who enters the country, according to the newspaper Dagbladet. The quarantine will be reduced from 14 to 10 days, probably also in Spitsbergen, and it will apply to everybody who is entering the country regardless of nationality, something that would make such a procedure comply with the Spitsbergen Treaty. This means that Spitsbergen as a destination might not be realistic for people who are not already in Norway.
All organised travelling will require a health safety plan accepted by the authorities.
This appears to be the current situation. Final confirmation and the futher development remains to be seen.
Several meetings have taken place in Longyearbyen this week with representatives of the tourism industry, the Sysselmannen and other authorities to discuss options for a careful opening of tourism, upon which many jobs depend.
A central task is creating a plan with hygiene- and other practical measures that ensure a safe and healthy practice for travelling. Such a plan is now work in process.
Sysselmannen Kjerstin Askholt emphasizes that a quick and complete restart will not happen. The idea is a careful and step-wise approach of a normal situation. Public health and safety, with the limited emergency and health services in mind, will have priority.
All involved seek a date to start first activities to give the companies a basis for planning. Such a date is not known at this time.
Hospital in Longyearbyen: Capacities are limited and the next big hospital far away.
It is unclear which ways of travelling will be possible again to start with. The assumption that tourism will, for a while, be limited to forms of travelling that involve limited numbers of persons and that take place not far from existing infrastructure seems to make sense. It is also unclear for how long and how far practical or, possibly, other limitations for international traffic will be in place.
Currently and at least until 18th May, everybody who arrives in Spitsbergen needs to stay in quarantine for 14 days.
UNIS has announced to not admit new students to courses for the summer and fall 2020 because of the Corona crisis. As there is so far no case of Covid-19 in Spitsbergen, the strategy is to make sure that those scientists and students who are already in Longyearbyen can continue with their work and education as normally as possible, and being (and staying) Covid-19-free does allow for a range of opportunities that UNIS wants to make use of.
Guest lecture by Maarten Loonen, the Ny-Ålesund-gooseman from the Netherlands,
With this background, no new students will be admitted to regular courses for the rest of the year. A few exceptions will only be made under strict conditions for master and PhD-students who need to to fieldwork for their thesis.
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)!