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Report from 1992: Avalanches can reach homes every 20 to 30 years

Eleven houses were hit by the landslide on December 19. It has been known for a long time that the area is landslide prone. FOTO: Geir Barstein

The avalanche:

Report from 1992: Avalanches can reach homes every 20 to 30 years

Now emergency preparedness measures will be review, according to The Governor of Svalbard.



On Tuesday night the evacuation of the area considered a high avalanche risk was repealed and the more than two-week state of emergency in Longyearbyen ended. Now the disaster is entering a new phase, said Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, where we need to look at the future as well as past.

In 1992, a report from the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute found that the pointed-roof houses on Vei 230 were avalanche prone.

"The mountainside above Vei 226 to 230 is sheltered from the prevailing wind direction...avalanches with relatively low velocities could reach the southern townhouses on Vei 230 with a recurring period of 20-30 years," the report states.

Twenty-three years later it happened. At about 10:20 a.m. Dec. 19, after a storm with a lot of powerful easterly winds and massive amounts of blowing snow, 5,000 tons were released without notice from the west side of Sukkertoppen and crushed two rows of homes on Vei 230. The force of the snowslide came as a surprise to even highly experienced avalanche experts.

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It is estimated that 5000 tons slid down the mountainside at a speed of 80 km / h. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Two people were killed in one of the biggest sudden emergencies that has hit the town in modern times.

"All this must be
explained in a proper way"

Now there are many questions must be asked, Askholt said. Could it have been avoided? Should anything have been done differently before, during and after the storm? What will it take to make sure it never happens again?

"All this must be explained in a proper way," Askholt said.

"We have also contacted the Department of Justice, and requested assistance from someone outside, that can have an overall responsibility for this."

New storms

The 1992 report recommends, among other things, including evacuation procedures as an option for those living in the affected areas.

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The houses were moved up to 80 meters from its original location. FOTO: Geir Barstein

"Such a solution means that one or more persons are delegated the responsibility to keep an eye on the weather and snow conditions throughout the winter," the report states.

"New storms will come and how should they be handled?" Askholt said. "There are already evacuation plans, but are they something that must be changed after this incident? It is natural to go through our preparedness. Is it robust and good enough? Now this happened during Christmas, but what if it had been in the middle of the tourist season? There are many things we have to go through in the future."

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There have been many landslides in the area before, without reaching down to the settlement. This photo was taken on December 20, 2010. FOTO: Markus Eckerstorfer

There have been many landslides in exactly the same area before, said Markus Eckerstorfer, who in 2012 earned a doctorate for his research about landslides in and around Longyearbyen.

"But they have often stopped at some distance from the settlement," he said.

There is no recorded avalanche that descended as far as the one on Dec. 19.

Not only was the row of houses closest to the mountainside taken, but also row beneath them. Such a possibility was not mentioned in the 1992 report.

"It is definitely an avalanche
that has gone surprisingly far"

"We've almost never seen anything like it before," said Kjetil Brattlien, an NGI avalanche expert and engineer who came to Svalbard to do assessments shortly after the disaster struck.

"It is definitely an avalanche that has gone surprisingly far," he said, calling the forces "absurd."

Brattlien and the NGI will now look into danger zones, both on the mountainside where the avalanche struck and throughout the rest of Longyearbyen, and do an updated assessment.

"Avalanche paths change and so does our understanding of nature," he said. "When it shows what it is capable of doing, it changes our knowledge about avalanches."

Updating assessments

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen said the work is a high priority.

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City Mayor Arild Olsen says the city is facing major changes, to prevent such a thing from happening again. FOTO: Geir Barstein

"We want to start up with this as quickly as possible," he told Svalbardposten. "We will take old reports as a starting point and update them, for example, when it comes to the effects of climate change and make them more robust."

That doesn't change the fact large parts of the city live in avalanche-prone areas. Although avalanche forecasts were introduced shortly after the Dec. 19 disaster and there are frequent risk assessments – allowing some time to evacuate if new situations arise – that is not that a good enough solution in the long term, according to the mayor.

"We now have a system that will hold for this winter, with avalanche warnings that are better than on the mainland," Olsen said. "But safety takes precedence over everything and this is not appropriate for the long term."

Permanent avalanche barriers are one option, but this does not immediately appear to be the best option, he said.

"Priority one is security," Olsen said. "Getting people and buildings away from the avalanches is the best solution. Considering that much of the exposed buildings are starting to get old, it doesn't appear appropriate for large, heavy barricades up on the mountainside."

Sjøområdet and the area surrounding Mary-Ann's Polarrigg are potential locations for new buildings, he said.

On Wednesday morning, the day after the traffic ban had ceased, there were still few vehicles to been seen outside the houses that had been evacuated. Svalbardposten has encountered many residents since the tragedy who are reluctant to move back to the avalanche-prone buildings.

"I've lived here for 11 years
and I'm not afraid to be here"

But Nils Lorentsen said he has no such doubts.

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On January 5th Nils Lorentsen moved back to his home, after having been evacuated since December 19. FOTO: Geir Barstein

"It will be good to move in again," he said. "I've lived here for 11 years and I'm not afraid to be here. My daughter will also come back. It is her childhood home, said Lorentsen, while talking about the special Christmas his family experienced after hastily being forced leave the house on the morning of Dec. 19.

"We did get to go in for a brief visit before we were to go on vacation, to retrieve the passports and some clothes," he said. "Both kids had done a lot with Atle, who died, so it has been a bit up and down. But we had a nice trip to London; it was a Christmas gift to them."

Translated by Mark Sabbatini


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