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."
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."