BREAKING: NVE report declares more than 150 residences and dorms in Lia and Nybyen are in avalanche danger zones

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More than 150 residences and dorms closest to the mountains in Lia and Nybyen have been declared avalanche danger zones in a study released Thursday by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. But while the report is intended to help Longyearbyen officials with land management and preventative measures, a directorate official said a recently activated warning system is an adequate short-term solution.

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An zoomable online map at the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate’s website shows areas of Longyearbyen considered at risk of being hit by avalanches.

That means that while residents in the danger zones may not be forced to move in the near future, they may be forced into more evacuations of the buildings beyond the two that have occurred during severe storms during the past year.

The report assesses various levels of risk for areas, with structures mathematically likely to be during a 100-year time period classified as danger zones. A total of 34 buildings, mostly multi-residential units such as apartment buildings and student dorms, are in the red zones.

“A total of 154 residential units and two hostels are located within the 100-year danger zone,” a summary of the report notes. “There is also critical infrastructure that is vulnerable.”

Red zone areas with structures include:

• Virtually all of the buildings in Nybyen at the base of the east mountains, although Gjesthuset 102 and an adjacent student dorm are at the very edge of it. Most Nybyen buildings outside the red zone, including Galleri Svalbard and Coal Miner’s Cabins, are in a yellow zone likely to be hit by a 500-year storm.

• All of the homes closest the mountains at Vei 222 (and one building immediately below them), and five of the six homes closest to the mountains at Vei 226 and 228.

• The back corner of the coal storage building adjacent to Longyearbyen’s power plant.

Although much of the area along western mountains are classified as red zones, there are no structures within them.

The list of buildings in orange and yellow zones is much larger, including some cabins outside the city limits, and the NVE’s report states “only a minor area of Longyearbyen satisfy the requirement of a yearly probability of ” being hit once every 20,000 years.

The report’s release comes four days before the one-year anniversary of an avalanche that killed two people, destroyed 11 homes and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes due to the risk of further snowslides. The avalanche was triggered by the worst blizzard in 40 years, which featured extremely heavy snowfall in a matter of hours and winds up to 120 kilometers an hour.

Many of the same residents were also forced to evacuate their homes for a few days in November when heavy rain within a few hours triggered numerous landslides. But the directorate says residents shouldn’t be panicked about the coming winter.

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A map shows which structures along the mountains in Longyearbyen are at risk (click for hi-resolution version). Areas in red are likely to be hit by a 100-year storm, orange by a 500-year storm and yellow areas by a 1,000-year storm. Map by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

“In the short term, an avalanche warning system is now implemented, ensuring that people living in landslide-prone areas can feel safe” said Knut Aune Hoseth, acting regional chief of the directorate’s northern division, in a prepared statement.

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen said city officials are unlikely to take any short-term action declaring areas uninhabitable.

“I understand people not being comfortable living there,” he said. “There is a risk of living in a hotspot. But we probably have the best avalanche warning system in Norway.”

But Olsen said he’d prefer not to have to rely on the system and it’s possible residents will be forced to continue evacuating at-risk areas during heavy storms under long-term solutions are enacted.

“That’s why the ultimate goal is not to evacuate,” he said. “It’s stressful.”

A multitude of entities including various government agencies, property owners, insurance companies, landlords and others will need to be involved in how to protect and/or relocate people living in danger zones, Olsen said.

“It’s a big puzzle,” he said.

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Officials from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, The Governor of Svalbard and Longyearbyen Community Council discuss the directorate’s avalanche risk report during a public meeting Thursday night at The University Centre in Svalbard. Photo by Mark Sabbatini /Icepeople.

Adequately funding avalanche remediation measures based on the NVE’s report was a late addition to a revised “white paper” outlining the Norwegian government’s policy goals for Svalbard. The full Parliament debated the revised draft late last month and is scheduled to approve a final version next spring.

A series of reports dating back more than two decades has highlighted settled areas of Longyearbyen that are at risk of avalanche. A 1992 report published by the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute stated the “pointed houses” on Vei 230, where last year’s avalanche occurred – could be hit every 20 to 30 years by snowslides from Sukkertoppen. The report recommended 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, but those efforts ceased when the city incorporated in 2001 for reasons not entirely clear. In 2008, the Longyearbyen Community Council and Store Norske signed an declaration stating “it is clear that parts of the buildings in Longyeardalen are located avalanche-prone areas, and require protection,” but couldn’t agree on who should foot the bill.

A 2012 study by the Geological Survey of Norway found much of Nybyen is also at risk of being hit by landslides due to instability induced by climate change. City officials said their intention was to develop an avalanche and landslide safety plan by the following year, but again the stalemate with Store Norske about who bore what responsibility persisted.

A decision by regional prosecutors not to investigate if any parties were criminally liable for the deaths and damage inflicted in last December’s avalanche was recently overturned by Norway’s Director of Public Prosecutions. The decision was reached after an appeal was filed by Pia Sivertsen and Kim Rune Røkenes, whose two-year-old daughter was killed in the Nikoline Røkenes. In addition, officials with the city and Store Norske are in discussions with the parents about a settlement that does not admit criminal liability.

Scientists have widely stated extreme weather is increasingly likely due to climate change, and Svalbard has set numerous short- and long-term records for temperature and precipitation during the past year.