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On the hunt for life-saving information

The snomobiles are left behind at Fritham, and the guys venture out to check on the conditions in the mountain sides. Jostein Aasen (from left), Sigmund Andersen, Frede Lamo and Jens Abild. FOTO: Christopher Engås

On the hunt for life-saving information

An avalanche warning system for Longyearbyen and the traffic areas around the town is well underway. But you can also help make it safer to travel in the field.

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22.02.2016 kl 13:27

It's Friday morning. A bunch of guys are getting ready to go out into the field. Their purpose is coming back with information that tells us something about the avalanche risk in the area around Longyearbyen. Jens Abild and Sigmund Andersen are two of the five people so far taking regular trips out into the terrain to check conditions. Markus Landrø and Jostein Aasen are both avalanche experts from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE).

"It is important to know what you are looking for before heading out," Landrø says. "What you are looking for depends on the weather we have experienced and the forecasts for the coming days."

He is the author of ""Skredfare" ("Avalanche Danger"), which first came out in 2002 and is considered essential reading material for powder hounds, mountaineering enthusiasts and training instructors.

Reporting

A course on the topic was taught last winter. Today includes a repetition of that plus a trip out into the field to do research in practice. Landrø is preoccupied with warning methods that absolutely everyone traveling out in the terrain can use.

"The forecast for Nordenskjöld Land one finds at varsom.no," he says. "The forecast is based on, among other things, what is entered at regobs.no."

Observations at regobs.no are submitted by people who make regular trips into the field for the purpose of checking conditions. But it is also possible for others to post observations. A person can create a profile or report anonymously. In addition, photos can be uploaded directly from a smartphone. A notification group on the mainland creates an alert from what is reported via the site, as well as the weather forecast and other factors that may be relevant.

"All information is valuable," Landrø says. "If one observes a place where an avalanche has gone while you are out and about, or that the weather forecast is not correct, it is invaluable to have that reported on regobs.no."

Overhang

The trip proceeds into Todalen toward Fritham. The group's intention is to check conditions on southeast-facing slopes. That's because of the weather the area has experienced in recent days. But the party doesn't get far into the valley before the first person in the entourage, Frede Lamo, makes a stop. On the left and on the east side of the valley from the snowmobile trail one can see there has been a minor avalanche from the western side of Bolternosa. At the top, one can clearly see a overhang.

"Here I have seen that there have been major avalanches, which have gone down the mountain above the valley floor and come right over snowmobile trail," Lamo says.

The guys get into a back-and-forth discussion about what avalanche advice may be appropriate in a situation with a risk of snowslides in the aforementioned location. It is possible to encourage people to stay on the snowmobile trail during tours, and it is also possible to discourage traffic on inclines close to it and the cardinal point.

In any event, Abild and Aasen do what is most important. They pull out a mobile phone and report what they have seen at regobs.no.

Gaining experience

On the way up toward Fritham the amount of snow increases significantly – the top layer of powdery snow in particular gets deeper. Snowmobiles are parked and the guys take out their skis.

"The beauty of snowmobiling is that you can travel relatively far into the terrain," Landrø says. "But in this work skis are also important tools."

Safety is always paramount.

"It has happened that some of those involved with avalanche warnings have taken themselves out in an avalanche," Landrø says. "Therefore, those who are doing this must be precautionary the entire time."

The avalanche warning system in Svalbard is relatively new. Martin Indreiten, logistics services coordinator at The University Centre in Svalbard, said he needs to accumulate experience for fieldwork.

"We need to find out which areas are comparable," he says. "If we, for example, find a persistent weak layer of snow on Larsbreen we must eventually be able to say whether this is valid information for many areas."

Moving around

The guys put on their skis and go up in a northwesterly direction to Westbytoppane. Landrø does an excavation in honor of the journalist on a south-facing slope. He shovels away some snow so that the layers are exposed. Under the estimated 30 centimeters of powder, he comes to a harder layer. The snow grains fit into a form on a card that says something about how easily the layers can slide.

"The layers are divided into types based on how solid they are. We measure the thickness of the layers and note the firmness," Landø says as he sticks a pencil into the layer under snow. When Landrø makes a cut in a part of this layer, the block slides right down and illustrates there is a layer under the fresh snow that does not have a particularly high friction against the underlying layer. In a given weather scenario this could be a "weak layer" with the potential to be a slab avalanche, the type that has taken the most lives in Norway.

Evaluating

Inspectors are looking to uncover a specific problem when they dig in the snow. Otherwise, avalanche warnings consist of little more than general observations of the area and weather conditions.

During the winter the area will be well-covered with people offering avalanche danger warnings. There are fixed routes the five "field detectors" take and which they choose is dependent on recent weather and the forecast. In addition to the five taking regular trips out to check the conditions, local guides are receiving training in how to report any sightings to regobs.no. The urban areas in Longyeardalen are the pur·view of the two NVE observers who are busy establishing routines.

"This is a pilot project," Indreiten says. "The observation group in the field will be a UNIS operation until the season is over on May 1. So this must be evaluated this summer. How the avalanche warning system will work next year is currently somewhat uncertain. One of the things to be discussed after the winter is funding. But so far this part of the avalanche warning system falls under the UNIS umbrella."

Translated by Mark Sabbatini.

Se bildet større

Jens Abild (left) and Jostein Aasen from NVE use a smart phone to report relevant observations. FOTO: Christopher Engås

Se bildet større

Avalanche expert Markus Landrø does a dig in the snow to check if there are unstable layers that potentially could slide. FOTO: Christopher Engås

Se bildet større

A minor avalanche can be seen on the mountain side of Bolternosa. There is also an overhang of snow at the top. This is the valuable information for the people on the mainland making the avalanche forecast. FOTO: Christopher Engås

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