In response to the tragic event that took place this past weekend I have been motivated to raise, in text, a few key issues regarding avalanche awareness which I believe we are facing in our small community in Longyearbyen.
It is a tragic shame to observe the passing of one of our young community members. One can only hope that this event will initiate a movement that will decrease the chances of such events occurring again. Often after fatal accidents, safety and decision-making are discussed. However, the momentum on how to act in response to such an accident fades quickly without sustained and decisive action.
The slide, a snowmobile triggered slab avalanche on Saturday morning, marks the 5th avalanche death the Longyearbyen community has seen in 15 years. This equals one death on average roughly every 3 years, despite the last fatality occurring in March of 2009 nearly 6 years ago. This figure also fails to reflect the number of near misses, houses that have been struck, bridges washed out, and the roads that have been crossed by avalanches during this time period. It is remarkable to see, that the last fatalities were all snowmobile drivers, a trend that is also observed in the US and Canada where an increasing amount of fatalities are snowmobilers.
Five fatalities is particularly significant considering the size of our community. But with that being said, given the amount of traffic of both residents and tourists traveling through avalanche terrain, amplified by the nearly complete lack of education provided on how to manage the risk, it may be surprising that there haven’t been more incidents. It is also important to note that it is very rare that avalanche accidents that don't claim lives are ever reported. This is a shame as we can often learn a great deal from studying these events in hindsight.
It is not surprising that these fatalities are taking place in close proximity to Longyeardalen, as this is where we spend most of our time recreating. These fatalities have occurred in avalanche terrain where steep, snow-covered slopes are often times connected to terrain traps. This type of terrain is found everywhere around our community both in Longyeardalen and the surrounding region. Having an understanding of what terrain is safe and un-safe is vital in traveling in the arctic wilderness. Also establishing basic protocols for traveling in potential hazardous terrain is critical. If snowpack conditions are at all in doubt, terrain management is the answer (i.e. how you and your party decide to travel through the landscape).
Living up on Svalbard we are faced with inherent risk and much of it is present once we leave our front doors. Whether it is the cold, polar bears or sea ice travel. If we just focus on polar bear safety, there is high consciousness of this issue. The community is aware of the risk, and both locals and tourists are taught how to manage this risk. Be it with trip wires, flare guns and rifles, or just the simple education that polar bears are frequently found on the sea ice in the spring and along the coast in the summer.
In the last 15 years the island has seen one human fatality from a polar bear, which took place in 2011 in the foreland of Von Postbreen. The amount of time, money, and education that goes into polar bear safety in this town ensures that the number of incidents between polar bear and humans remains low. Residents and guides know how to handle rifles and can act in the event of a polar bear encounter.
By comparison, the number of people who could effectively perform a companion avalanche rescue, evaluate a snowy slope for instabilities or even identify weather patterns that might cause dangerous conditions is undoubtedly low, especially in the group that is most exposed to the risk (recreational snowmobilers). This is due to the lack of avalanche specific education provided within the community. In nearly all other developed regions around the world that face avalanche hazard, education networks and warning systems have been established by state agencies. If the governing authorities in Longyearbyen do not take similar action, then avalanches will continue to take lives from our settlement.
This lack of avalanche specific education results in a common misunderstanding about how risk is perceived. For instance, just because a slope slides once doesn’t mean it is forever and always dangerous. Additionally, just because you have never seen a slope avalanche, does not mean it never will. A mountain doesn’t avalanche based on luck or curses. Basic factors combine to form a slope’s (in) stability. The combination of terrain parameters, weather conditions, snow stratigraphy and most importantly how we choose to make decisions regarding these conditions effectively aids us in causing or avoiding avalanches.
As part of a week-long safety course at UNIS, students and faculty are presented with a brief introduction to avalanche hazard and rescue as well as how to respond to other dangers that are part of life up here. The Red Cross has a well-educated and active avalanche group that is in charge of search and recovery missions. I say recovery only because, due to the nature and urgency of many avalanche rescues (unlike a crevasse rescue), by the time non-companion support arrives, the result is more likely the recovery of a body than the rescue of a victim. We must do more.
Longyearbyen needs to focus on making sure our whole community is well educated and prepared for avalanche hazard and terrain. Additionally the youth needs to have roll-models who address avalanche hazard, safety and basic protocols while traveling through dangerous terrain, whether on skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles.
I wish for the town to take a stand and promote avalanche education. It is vital for people to know how to perform a companion rescue, as after 12 minutes under the snow the chances of survival drop from 90% chance of survival to less then 30%. It is also critical that people are able to recognize avalanche terrain and avalanche hazard. And I wish for the Norwegian Avalanche Center to take responsibility both in the education and forecasting of avalanche dangers in Longyearbyen. It would be beneficial for our small community if a basic warning system were established for a fixed region around town. This currently is provided on the mainland in 22 different regions based on terrain, population size and necessity (Varsom.no). Due to the nature of our international community up here, it would be important for this warning system to be made in at least the two dominant languages on Svalbard.
It is crucial that not just a small number of people are well educated in how to manage this hazard, use avalanche equipment (beacon, shovel and probe) and perform a rescue. Everyone spending time in avalanche terrain (i.e. anyone who plans to go out on a trip or snowmobile tour during the months September to July) needs to know this. It is important that Longyearbyen and its community members finally address this issue. We cannot afford to lose any-more people from our small community. By remaining ignorant and passive to the avalanche issue we are only allowing ourselves to continue to be hurt.
We have two nice signs that highlight the danger of polar bear as we exit the Longyearbyen city limits. Imagine if we had similar signs noting avalanche conditions and a danger level as we exit up through Longyearbreen, or into Adventdalen. Or imagine if tourists during their pre-trip briefing on how to dress warm, and drive a snowmobile were additionally briefed on the avalanche hazard on the way to Barentsberg. Maybe they even have to wear beacons because all the guides are not only caring rescue equipment, but know how to use it…
Finally before finishing this, I would like to stress further condolences to the deceased, family, friends and colleges.
About the author:
Wesley R. Farnsworth
Doctoral Cand. at UNIS
Msc. in Snow Science
Five years experience on Svalbard, and snow experience in northern Europe, North and South America.