The report from the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB) was released at noon Thursday. It examines both the rescue operation after the avalanche on Sukkertoppen last December, and preventative efforts before it occurred.
"The responsibility for avalanches in populated areas has not been sufficiently clarified," said DSB Director Cecilie Daae. "That applies not only to Svalbard and is something that must be done at the central level."
Svalbard's community is unique due to a high turnover of people, she said. That has been a liability despite several risk and vulnerability studies, along with proposals for preventive measures, occurring during the past 24 years. Some concrete steps were initiated to implement some of those measures, only to be discontinued without sufficient explanation why.
"We believe there is a need for better routines that provide systematized communication of information regardless of personnel and organizational changes," Daae said.
Need better follow up
DSB was commissioned to do the report by Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security.
"It is important to emphasize that we have not conducted an audit, but looked at learning points for future crises or emergency work," Daae said. "We're looking not only for those things that did not go well, but also what works."
The report states there should be more follow up on analyzing the risks and potential vulnerabilities of emergency operators in Svalbard. In instances where it is not possible to reduce the likelihood of incidents, consequence-reducing measures should be implemented.
It also states it is essential roles and responsibilities are clarified in terms of avalanches in Longyearbyen, including from officials at the central level.
The Longyearbyen Community Council is responsible for protecting people's safety and security under civil protection law regulations. That includes ensuring critical societal functions and critical infrastructure are safeguarded, and being properly prepared for dealing with incidents. The Governor of Svalbard is responsible for the overall work on civil protection and emergency planning.
One of the learning points of the report is the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, in collaboration with DSB, should to a greater extent clarify requirements and expectations of the governor's societal mandate.
Is that an indirect criticism of the ministry itself?
"We see areas we will cooperate more clearly on," Daae said. "We dealt with it earlier, but there is a shift in Svalbard towards a society more similar to the mainland."
The DSB director noted Svalbard's society is changing and several factors, such as increased tourism and climate change, means more thought should be given to emergency preparedness, especially the scope of it.
"We need to have good discussions and debates about what kind of emergency preparedness you should have and the dimension of that preparedness," Daae said. "One must ask the question of whether you have enough capacity at any time for any scenario. Investing in emergency preparedness is to invest in events that do not happen. One must first prevent them from happening – and if there are incidents they be handled in a good way."
Part of what is distinctive about Svalbard is the long distance to neighboring communities, so rescue crews here can't expect to get reinforcements from outside in the early stages of an incident.
"One must think about emergency preparedness based on proximity," Daae said. "One has to have a longer endurance on Svalbard than on the mainland. That becomes part of the overall preparedness discussion."
Should the law be changed to better determine responsibility?
"We are delivering this report to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, and I can't answer that specifically," Daae said. "The report has many lessons which should be followed up on. We will discuss this further when we deliver the report to the justice ministry. But it is clear that such a report requires follow-up with the people who have responsibility here."
She said everyone they contacted during their work on the report has been open and introspective, allowing the best possible assessment of learning points.
Avalanches in Lia - a history
Avalanche hazard mapping in Longyearbyen has been carried out for decades, and on occasion initiatives for safeguards and warnings have been pursued. "Both the surveys and measures related to avalanche danger in Lia are, however, for several reasons not systematically followed up on," according to the DSB report.
The residential area of Lia was undeveloped in the 1970s, and construction of the houses on Vei 230 started in 1976. The risk of avalanches there was not known at the time. In 1991, a relatively large avalanche occurred in Lia and the southernmost houses on Vei 230 were exposed to snow masses nearly reaching their walls, but nothing was destroyed. A report the following year stated the area was prone to avalanches and a snowslide large enough to the reach the southern tip of the houses could occur every 20 to 30 years.
In 2008, Store Norske and the Longyearbyen Community Council made an effort to clarify their roles and responsibilities, including those with respect to avalanches in Lia. The council asserted the city's planning and building department should not be held responsible because the council didn't exist when the homes were built. Store Norske, the owner of the property, claimed they didn't have responsibility for safeguards because it leased out land and built homes in an area which at that time was not considered an avalanche hazard.
Both entities agreed they should work on the issue together, along with the other parties involved, and discuss the issue at the ministerial level for final clarification. Store Norske submitted the case to Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries without getting any clear recommendation. The Longyearbyen council approached the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, and also asked for clarification of the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate's (NVE) role regarding avalanches in Svalbard. The conclusion was Svalbard was on an equal footing with municipalities on the mainland when prioritizing financial assistance was considered by the NVE. NVE's assistance on mapping, land use planning, security, monitoring, notification and handling incidents are prioritized based on where efforts yield the greatest benefit.
The DSB report nevertheless states:
"The fundamental responsibility to protect one's own property is on the individual. There is still no statutory obligation to secure natural damage insurance for owners of real estate, and there are no rules that make it illegal for people to stay or reside in areas with flood or avalanche risks. There is therefore no rules that require the implementation of safety measures as a prerequisite for continued habitation or remaining in areas at risk of natural disasters."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini