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A need for avalanche warnings

FOTO: Christopher Engås

A need for avalanche warnings

An effort is underway to establish an avalanche warning system for Svalbard on par with the mainland. UNIS is is ready to collect the necessary data.

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06.02.2015 kl 14:35

A young man lost his life Jan. 24 to an avalanche accident in Fardalen. Longyearbyen and national officials quoted in a separate article this week are criticizing, among other things, the lack of avalanche warnings for the area around the city.

Rune Engeset is the sector manager for the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) and chairman of the Norwegian Avalanche Warning Centre. He said NVE participated in a planning meeting with The University Centre in Svalbard, Longyearbyen Red Cross and tourism industry officials in February of last year. They discussed the need for an avalanche warning system for the area around Longyearbyen and how it could be implemented.

"It is in our plans to also start an avalanche warning system for Nordenskiöld Land," Engeset said. "We are in discussion with UNIS, Red Cross and tourism industry officials who have positive attitudes about making observations for us, and who believe there is a need for warnings."


Must have the capability

The sector manager isn't predicting when a warning system might be in place.
"We are eager to get it started as soon as possible," Engeset said. "But we must know that the forecasts are good enough and that they can be made every day during the winter months."

Is last month's accident a reason to speed up the work?

"The avalanche accident underscores the need to also have a warning system in Svalbard," he said.

Engese said that before NVE accepts Svalbard into the agency's the warning system, it must know it has the capability to analyze the data. Officials must also know the data comes from regular sightings in the area. Furthermore, several areas in mainland Norway are waiting to join the alert system.

"We now have warnings at 22 sites in Norway," Engeset said. "There is an extensive work of analysis. If a region in Svalbard is be included we must be sure that we have the capability to get good enough quality alerts. We have built up a system in a short time, while alpine countries have spent many years developing avalanche warnings. Norway is also a very large area in relation to such alpine countries. We need to include new warnings step by step."


Will participate
NVE has created a system to share observations from the field at the website regobs.no. Information about fresh landslides, the stability of the snow cover and avalanche danger ratings is submitted and shared.

"It appears that UNIS, the Red Cross and tourism companies are going to use the system to make observations this season," Engeset said.

Fred Skancke Hansen, director of safety and infrastructure at UNIS, said the university wants to be involved with arranging for an avalanche warning system.

"We have expertise on avalanches and enough resources to start a monitoring of the snow conditions," Hansen said. "We don't have the expertise to perform avalanche warnings, but in conjunction with others we are collecting the information needed."
UNIS does such work anyway, he said.

"We go out and take shovel tests almost every time we send people out in the field," Hansen said. "This is a way to share information and we may as well do it within the NVE system. Snow training and research is something UNIS also does a lot. This is not something we are going to charge for, but something we are doing both for our own sake and society's."


Has the resources

UNIS will now start uploading its data into the NVE database.

"We are waiting for feedback from NVE," Hansen said. "Should this be valid information, they need to take the samples and have the same understanding of how it should be done."

Establishing areas where samples should be taken is also needed.

"They must be representative of an area where people congregate," Hansen said. "Fardalen and Todalen are the areas that now present themselves as being the most appropriate. Our ambition is to take samples at least two days a week and maybe more often when the weather dictates it."

Jørgen Haagensli, director of the Longyearbyen Red Cross said they are favorable toward getting a warning system for the area around Longyearbyen, but he does not want to commit to digging the snow profiles for NVE before the search and rescue organization's board has responded.

"People need to use their spare time, and our experience is it takes between four and eight hours to take a snow profile," Haagensli said. "The Red Cross is a volunteer organization and we can't obligate people to use their spare time for this."
The tourism industry also wants a warning system.

"All of the major companies have been involved and are positive about contributing, but we have not been specific on how," said Sveinung Toppe, operations manager for package tours at Spitsbergen Travel. "We travel a lot out there and see a lot. What we see we will share with others, without necessarily going out and digging profiles. That other institutions are perhaps better suited to."

Nøkkelord

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FOTO: Line Nagell Ylvisåker

Considerations before your trip

• How has the weather been during the three days before your trip? Has there been a change in the weather? Has there been precipitation? If yes, how much snow has fallen? Has there been much wind and wind-drift snow? If yes, what has the wind direction been and what will be the leeward side? If the answer is yes to these questions, the risk of avalanches will increase.

• How is the weather forecast for the coming days? Is there a report of a change in the weather? Is much precipitation forecast? Are there predictions of windy conditions and opportunities for wind-drift snow? If yes, there is a likelihood of avalanches during the coming days.

• Talk with knowledgeable people who have been in the area recently and find out what the conditions are.

• Examine how steep the terrain is along the route you have chosen. Avalanches normally occur on mountain slopes with an inclination of 30° or more, but can occur on gentler terrain as well (especially slush avalanches).

When avalanche danger exists:
Choose safe routes that go into flat and open terrain. Avoid narrow gorges and areas known to be prone to avalanches. This is especially important during the dark season. In the dark it is difficult to assess how much snow is on the mountainside. The dark season is also the period of the year when conditions and highly variable and unstable. (Those seeking additional information about avalanches in the area around Longyearbyen can download a Cryoslope report at http://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/objects/issw-2009-0044-0047.pdf.)


Immediately before the trip starts:
• Provide notification about where you are going, when you are proceeding further and when you expect to return.

• Buddy check: Make sure everyone has a shovel, probe and transceiver – and that the transceiver is turned on and working.

• Transceivers should be on the body.


During the trip:
• Never wander off alone.
• Observe the wind direction, wind transport of snow and avalanche activity. Recent snow slides are a sure sign the snow layer is unstable, which equates to avalanche danger. Avoid the leeward sides.

It is acceptable to stop in a safe place to check the snowpack by:

• Listening for rumblings in the snow, looking for excess cracks, taking a compression test.

• Avoiding driving on terrain steeper than 30°.

• Considering at all times if you are in an outlet zone for avalanches.

• Being aware of terrain traps. Terrain traps can be: narrow valleys, riverbeds and avalanche-prone areas. Keep a good distance between snowmobiles so assistance can be provided if an incident occurs.

Source: www.snoskred.no

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