For various reasons, I had to leave the news section on this website alone for a couple of days, but (almost) nothing is getting lost here … so, what has happened up there recently?
Actually, quite a lot:
The sun is back! Following good tradition, the return of the sun was celebrated in Longyearbyen with the key event on 08 March. That is the day when the sun is actually visible again above the mountains from Longyearbyen. From the old parts of Longyearbyen, that is, where the tradition was born; you can actually see the sun a couple of days earlier from the newer parts of Longyearbyen close to the fjord. And already in late February from suitable places in the surroundings of Longyearbyen, in elevated positions or in Hiorthhamn (on the north side of Adventfjord). As long as you have a clear view to the south.
Talking about a free view: it all doesn’t really help when the sun is hiding behind clouds. This was the case this time on 08 March. Nevertheless, locals and tourists celebrated the occasion with a series of cultural events that come with the return of the sun.
sun festival with clear sky (archive image; this time, it was overcast).
Emergency rescue services in demand: accidents and evacuations
The busy winter season is in full swing, and the emergency rescue services are in demand. On Saturday, a ski hiker was rescued during stormy weather from Rabotbreen. Due to seriously bad weather, SAR forces had to abort a first attempt to find the man on Friday, but a short weather window allowed for a successful helicopter flight on Saturday. In the meantime, the man, a Polish citizen, has talked to various media. He was on the way to Newtontoppen, to prepare for a later expedition in Antarctica. With several expeditions in arctic parts of Canada and Siberia, the man has considerable relevant experience.
This was only one of several recent examples. During the busy winter season, it is not a very rare event that people – tourists or locals – have to be evacuated from the field after snow mobile (or other) accidents.
The local section of the Red Cross reminded everybody recently that also professional SAR forces have to deal with weather and other dangers of nature and may not alway be able to promptly help people in need, especially under conditions when things are likely to happen.
Snow mobile group out on tour in Adventdalen.
One of the more curious events of this kind in a wider sense happened on Tuesday in Hiorthhamn, when a snow mobile caught fire. No people were harmed. The exact reason is not publically known in this case, but it may for example happen when someone drives with the hand brake put on. Not unheard of.
While I was writing these lines on Wednesday, a serious snow mobile accident happened that sadly took one person’s life. Read more about this case here in a dedicated posting (I kept the article that you are reading right now unpublished for another day because it felt inappropriate to publish it, where the news of a fatal accident are just one of many bits and pieces of information).
By now, there is some more information available. The deceased person was in his 60s and travelling alone. He was the last one in a guided group of snow mobile tourists when he got off the track and fell down a steep, 10-12 metres deep ravine. First aid measures were applied but when the SAR helicopter arrived, saving the man’s life was beyond reach despite of all efforts.
Small ships under pressure, big ones coming big time
Bigger cruise ships may be in for a record-breaking summer. A spectrum from 100+ passenger expedition ships to large cruise ships carrying several thousand passengers may bring up to 75,000 tourists to Longyearbyen in the upcoming summer. This will, for example through port fees, bring a lot of money to Longyearbyen’s public cash balance and private companies will also benefit, but others watch this development with mixed feelings. There are many locals who feel that the place is overcrowded when large cruise ships are in port, and the hospital has already expressed worries regarding health service capacities.
Tourists travel to Svalbard on a wide range of ships from small sailing boats to large cruise ships.
At the same time, tour operators focussing on small ships are worried about the future of their activities which is threatened by serious restrictions announced by the Norwegian government. They have been matter of controversial public discussion already for some time. There are no recent news, and we have to wait and see what the result of the process will look like. On Wednesday, representatives of the local economy travelled to Oslo to present their viewpoint and express their worries about politics that, as they feel, seem to have lost the connection to the local reality.
It seems as if the mission of the Longyearbyen representatives had at least some success: several members of the Norwegian parlament have since exppressed doubts about the legal proposals and suggested to put the process on hold until the new Svalbardmelding is out in 2024. The Svalbardmelding is a government declaration that defines a frame for future Svalbard politics for a couple of years. The last one came out in 2016, and it did not say anything about closing large parts of the archipelago for most people and other stuff that is going on right now.
Click here to read more about the plans of the Norwegian government. According to current knowledge, we expect changes to enter force in 2024.
At the same time, Norwegian oil and gas businesses celebrate a record-breaking year, due to high prices on the world markets which are at least in part the consequence of the Russian war against the Ukraine, and new discoveries in the North Sea, according to NRK.
Few will deny that certain fields of regulation concerning tourism need improvement, for example a guide certification scheme which has been discussed for years, a limit to the number of expedition ships (100 or maximum 200 passengers capacity), a size limit for larger ones and a general ban on crude oil in arctic waters, while there is no factual reason to dispossess really small ships of the possibility to land passengers almost anywhere on Svalbard’s coastline as has been the case so far. But considering the political pressure on tourism in Svalbard on one side and the further development of oil and gas, one may experience Norwegian environmental politics as rather ambivalent.
Environmental toxins at Hotellneset
Pollution problems of certain areas at Hotellneset, near the airport, with certain long-lived environmental toxins (PFAS) thought to cause cancer have been known for years. The substances go back to firefighting substances used on a firefighting exercise area. Jørn Dybdahl, formerly owner of a riding centre at Hotellneset, considers his cancer to be related to the local pollution. The handling of the matter by relevant authorities has been a matter of criticism for a long time.
Hotellneset near Longyearbyen airport has a long history of industrial use and corresponding pollution.
Naturvernforbundet in Troms, an ecology group form north Norway, have recently added to the criticism: while 100 mg are the theshold value for PFAS in mainland Norway and environmental authorities are actually debating the reduction of the allowed maximum value to 2 mg, the Norwegian environmental authority (miljødirektorat) has suggested 150 mg to be an acceptable maximum value for Hotellneset. Naturvernforbund Troms fears that environmental standards are lowered to save costs of the clean-up which has to be carried out. Accepting higher threshold values would indeed be a strange step especially in an arctic ecosystem which due to the low temperatures is especially sensitive to chemical influences.