Is someone to blame? Little action taken despite more than 20 years of avalanche risk warnings; many asking why

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The catastrophe occurred within seconds. But there was at least 23 years to heed warnings and take actions that might have prevented it.

As the immediate shock and living rearrangements from the Dec. 19 avalanche pass, local leaders and others are asking if someone is to blame. A series of reports since 1992 has highlighted settled areas of Longyearbyen that are at risk of avalanches – including Sukkertoppen, where December’s deadly slide occurred.

“And now the question is posed: Why was there not anything sone to protect the settlement below Sukkertoppen from an avalanche?” wrote Lars Egil Mogård, a longtime NRK journalist covering Svalbard and northern Norway, in a commentary published Sunday. “Where was there failure? Who is responsible?”

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen said city officials are trying to collect all of the research conducted about avalanche risks – although some of it is poorly archived – and an independent investigation of the response to the warnings will be sought.

“We do not know how the investigation is to take place yet, or who should perform it, but I am clear on one thing: We will not sit in the driver’s seat,” he told Svalbardposten. “We shall not examine ourselves.”

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A map of Longyearbyen shows the avalanche risk level levels in various areas in 2011. Map courtesy of UNIS.

In addition, a preliminary report about the avalanche and its aftermath is due in about a week, Kjetil Brattlien, an avalanche expert at the NGI who has been conducting surveys in Longyearbyen since the disaster, told NRK this week. The Governor of Svalbard is also investigating the incident as a police matter.

A 1992 report published by the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute stated the “pointed houses” on Vei 230 – a local landmark until 11 of them were buried and destroyed by the avalanche – were facing significant and recurring risks of snowslides.

“Debris flows and avalanches can reach the settlements,” the report states. “Avalanches against houses in this area will therefore be able to do considerable damage.”

“Recurrence intervals of avalanches danger of damage to buildings and those that remain there is estimated to be 20-30 years on average.”

The report recommends several safety measures including building supports, safety nets and snow shields, none of which were implemented.

A handful of locals did begin monitoring avalanche conditions in 1993, including Fire Chief Kjell Onarheim and Atle Brekken, who was an engineer for Svalbard Samfunnsdrift, which was a precursor to an official local council before the city incorporated in 2001, according to High North News.

“NGI made it very clear that there were going to be avalanches,” Brekken told the online newspaper. “We knew that it happened because we had one or two avalanches per year – less extensive, of course – but I know that the snow has fallen on the ‘pointed houses’ again and again.”

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The Mine 2B mountain in Nybyen is among those considered to be one of the most at risk for avalanches and landslides, according to a 2012 study. Photo courtesy of UNIS,

The monitoring ceased when Longyearbyen officially incorporated, for reasons Brekken and current local leaders are uncertain of, except that the transitional period resulted in some routines being overlooked or set aside.

Still, Brekken and NGI officials expressed surprised at the extent of damage during the Dec. 19 avalanche, saying it exceeded all predictions. The avalanche was triggered by one of the worst storms in Svalbard’s history, featuring heavy snow within hours accompanied by winds up to 120 kilometers an hour.

Mogård, in his commentary, noted “on March 10, 2008, an agreement was signed between Store Norske and the Longyearbyen Community Council (stating) among other things ‘it is clear that parts of the buildings in Longyeardalen are located avalanche-prone areas, and require protection.” But the two entities couldn’t agree on who should foot the bill and “apparently little has happened in retrospect after the agreement,” Mogård wrote.

And while current local leaders say they want an investigation into past studies and responses – or lack thereof – they may find themselves among those sharing the blame for indifference.

The council sent a letter to the NGI last September requesting ” a thematic map that will unite all existing avalanche reports, carry out new calculations where necessary and to account for climate change,” according to Nordlys. But the council, acting on subsequent advice from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate – the NGI’s parent agency – that available mapping provided sufficient data, abandoned the request about two weeks before the avalanche struck.

Olsen told the newspaper that, while he was surprised previous safety recommendations were not implemented, an updated report in December would not have been in time to take measures to avoid the damage inflicted by the avalanche.

Longyearbyen was scheduled to begin a trial avalanche monitoring program in February of this year, but that was accelerated and expanded into a full monitoring program as part of a nationwide database four days after the avalanche. The city, avalanche experts and other are also expected to study residential areas at the base of mountains, especially on the east side of town, to determine if they are unsafe for long-term habitation.

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