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Extensive safety work

The Governor of Svalbard used helicopter in the search of landslides. FOTO: Line Nagell Ylvisåker

Extensive safety work

259 people were forced to evacuate their homes this week in Longyearbyen. Mayor Arild Olsen wants to avoid more evacuations in the future.



Much of Lia, all of Nybyen, a row of homes in Gruvedalen and Svalbard Church were still evacuated when Svalbardposten went to press Wednesday. Several roads were closed and there was a traffic ban in many areas. A near-record rainstorm came this week while the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) is working on an avalanche report for Longyearbyen. It will be important as politicians plan the city's future.

"I will not speculate on the outcome of the report, but we have many natural hazards concentrated in a small area that makes great demands on the government in Longyearbyen," said Mayor Arild Olsen, a Labor Party member.

Want to avoid evacuations
Olsen said he does not want more situations where much of the city's population is forced to abandon their homes in the future.

There are two options to achieve that: landslide and flood defenses, or moving people to safer areas.

"The ultimate goal must be that we will end up in a situation where evacuations are not necessary.," Olsen said. "Until then we are working to get sufficient control on making s scientific decisions on evacuations and opening up areas to people to move back."

Has the threshold for evacuations gotten lower after the avalanche last Dec. 19?

"We have gotten some useful experience and had some learning points," Olsen said. "Longyearbyen is a place with many natural hazards. Subjectively, I think climate change has accelerated dramatically in recent years. There has been more wet and severe weather, and it will affect the situation."

'Good teamwok'
The Governor of Svalbard has the last word about when areas should be evacuated, while Longyearbyen's municipal government is responsible for carrying out the evacuations.

"I think that has worked very well," Olsen said. "First and foremost, I would say that all the agencies have worked well together. The population has been understanding and stood up for each other. I have experienced that people have appreciated that we are showing that we have control of the situation."

The decisions about the evacuation and closure of areas are made in close consultation with NVE. After an alert about the heavy rain was issued during the weekend they read up on past landslide events in Longyearbyen. Intense rainfall in 1972 and 1981 triggered large landslide activity in and near the city. From that they considered that numerous landslides and debris flows were possible in Longyearbyen this week, and that many of the landslides could threaten settlements.

Continuous monitoring
On Tuesday some cracks were observed in the ground beneath Sukkertoppen and around Gruvedalen, along with some minor landslides and debris flows. The cracks are obvious signs of movement on the ground, which can develop into landslides. The governor has flown helicopters over Longyearbyen, bringing people from Longyearbyen's government and The University Centre in Svalbard for the surveys before consulting with NVE officials.

"Then we must see what small landslides and cracks tell us.," said Gov. Kjerstin Askholt. "Are they small landslides which are harmless or something that needs to be checked further? So we describe what types of cracks and small landslides they are."

She also said she believes cooperation between the agencies has been good.

"The main impression is that we are working well together," Askholt said. "There is a good climate of cooperation and, not least, it is very important for us to make decisions about evacuations and canceling evacuations. We get good professional advice and work well together, even though we are tired and the hours are long."

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