New abnormal: How often will we have to evacuate homes this winter due to extreme storms? And for good later?

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We may be in for a winter of discontent, but that’s far preferable to another time of tragedy.

Hundreds of Longyearbyen residents were forced to evacuate their homes for the second time in less than a year earlier this month due to extreme weather and officials said it’s entirely possible more will occur in the near future. What nobody can realistically predict, of course, is just how often.

“I don’t dare to speculate how often, but I can say Longyearbyen is a place with many natural disaster natural hazard around,” said Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen. “So of course for now we are doing the our best with he resources we have to get an overview of the situation and getting a control on it.”

“What I can say is I’ve seen myself in recent times more bad weather due to climate change. Therefore it looks like it’s due to become more harsh – harsher wind, harsher snowfall, harsher rainfall, it’s warmer.”

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A researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard examines a hillside near Nybyen, which was one of the areas evacuated when record rainfall triggered numerous landslides. Photo courtesy of UNIS.

A total of 259 residents, students and visitors were forced to abandon their housing earlier this month when more than 49 millimeters of rain fell in Longyearbyen during a 24-hour period Nov. 8 and 9. The storm, accompanied by near-gale winds and temperatures well above freezing, occurred after heavy rainfall since July had already saturated the mountains to the point of causing the worst landslides in more than 40 years in mid-October.

The city was responsible for implementing the evacuation plan after it was ordered by Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt. She stated during the evacuation the decision was made to err on the side of caution and, in an e-mail statement issued through spokesperson Terje Carlsen, indicated that will continue.

“Beforehand, it is not possible to predict what types of considerations and measures that will have to be made in every different situation, but evacuation may be one such measure,” she wrote. “In any case, the safety and security of the inhabitants of Longyearbyen will be the major concern.”

Askholt noted she can’t state extreme weather is a “new normal” in Svalbard, but her decisions are based on consultations with climate experts who rely on past experiences and future predictions.

A number of studies in since the early 1990s have found various parts of Longyearbyen are vulnerable to severe avalanches and landslides. An avalanche last Dec. 19 that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people resulted in the commission of a report by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate assessing risks and potential solutions in settled areas. The report, originally scheduled for release at the end of October, is now expected to be finished before the end of year.

Olsen said if areas of Longyearbyen are declared unsafe and remedies such as barriers aren’t possible the only solution will be to relocate people, which likely will require the construction of new housing. As a result, a large-scale relocation would not be possible this winter if the NVE report determines that is necessary.

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A map shows areas where landslides occurred between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg earlier this month. Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA

Satellite photos show more than 50 landslides and other forms of debris flows occurred between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg due to the storm earlier this month. Bernd Etzelmüller, a researcher at Department of Geosciences at the University of Oslo, said in a prepared statement he believes such weather – and the resulting landslides and avalanches – will become increasingly common in the future.

“It shows that there is a great imbalance in the system,” he said. “We know from before that Svalbard’s environment is vulnerable, something this confirms. That will require a completely different emergency preparedness than we have today, especially in the inhabited places of Svalbard.”