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Extending avalanche warnings in Svalbard

This picture was taken three days after the fatal avalanche in Longyearbyen. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Extending avalanche warnings in Svalbard

Avalanche warning forecasts will be published daily until May 31.



The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) previously was planning a trial program for two months at the beginning of this year, but after last month's avalanche the agency is extending the monitoring and warnings.

"It is partly because of the avalanche that occurred in December," said Odd Arne Mikkelsen, an avalanche forecaster for the NVE, in an interview with Svalbardposten.

He said the NVE will conduct five observations per week, and compare them with weather reports and forecasts from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The observations are being done by the NVE and The University Centre in Svalbard.

Avalanche forecasts for Nordenskiöld Land will be published daily at 4 p.m. at varsom.no, including details about the routes snowmobilers and others on tours regularly use.

"When things come to a head and there is a danger of avalanches around Longyearbyen we will do a local assessment," Mikkelsen said.

Local government's responsibility

The Governor of Svalbard has stated Longyearbyen's municipal government is responsible for the safety of inhabitants in town, according to emergency preparedness regulations.

"When there is an alert that there the possibility of natural avalanches, Longyearbyen's local government will be contacted for an assessment of follow-up actions," a press release at the governor's website states. "Follow-up can include increased monitoring or evacuations. The governor assists when needed for the Longyearbyen local government to implement this, and to establish and implement appropriate traffic bans."

The assessments of avalanche danger will, in addition to weather and snowpack forecasts, be based on local knowledge of avalanche paths.

Closer monitoring

Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said she believes the avalanche warnings will strengthen emergency preparedness significantly.

"It gives us an opportunity to implement measures that allow closer monitoring and, in the worst case scenario, to evacuate plenty of time in advance," she said.

Askholt noted the additional NVE monitoring around Longyearbyen is an offer not common made on the mainland. She said she believes it gives officials a good basis for assessing what actions are professionally prudent. The NVE initially did not plan to issue alerts throughout the winter, but Askholt said she won't speculate about the psychology of strengthening the avalanche warning system now.

"I think that you're ensuring that we have a safe and predictable system while the snow is here this year," she said, adding people also want a better ability to plan their trips.

"But I think it is important that each person realizes that we live in an area exposed to the weather," she said. "Do not take chances. This should not deprive people of their own responsibility."

Debating the alerts

The NVE assumed a greater responsibility for Svalbard in 2014, two years after a large slush avalanche on Vannledningsdalen in Longyearbyen.

The debate about avalanche warnings in Svalbard flared up again in January of 2015 after a 21-year-old was killed when he caught in an avalanche at Fardalen. In the wake of that event, it was made clear UNIS would assist with observations.

The NVE is urging the public to report observations at regobs.no, which can easily be used on mobile phones.


"At the beginning of February there will be an information meeting held about the notification system where the governor, NVE and Longyearbyen local government will be present so that people have the opportunity to see what we publish on varsom.no," an NVE statement notes.

The program will be evaluated in June.

"This will become permanent," Mikkelsen said. "We must see how this has worked, whether we have hit our goals, if we are doing this properly and if what we are doing is good enough."


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