STORM ALERT: Blizzard ‘reminiscent’ of storm last Dec. 19 – with less snow – expected to hit Wednesday night, Thursday

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Update (1:20 p.m. Tuesday): The Norwegian Meteorological Institute has issued a storm alert forecasting gale-force winds of 90 kilometers an hour and gusts to 135 kilometers an hour in exposed locations. Peak winds are expected between 6 p.m. Wednesday and 3 a.m. Thursday.

In addition, avalanche conditions are forecast to be near or at maximum risk levels, although their predicted potential size is signifianctly smaller than the one last Dec. 19. The story below has been updated.

Original story: A blizzard “reminiscent of the storm on Dec. 19 of last year” is expected to bring up to 14.4 millimeters of precipitation and winds up to 135 kilometers an hour, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

The weather service issued a storm alert early Tuesday afternoon and a meteorologist made the comparison with last year’s historic storm in an interview with Svalbardposten. In addition, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) is forecasting level four avalanche risk conditions (“high”) in Svalbard during the storm, with possible level five conditions (the maximum rating, classified as “extreme”) in some areas during its peak.

The local emergency council, including local leaders and regional avalanche officials, are scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to evaulate the situation and again on Wednesday morning, during which the possibility of evacuations will be discussed.

“We have in place a good avalanche warning system and there are procedures regarding what is now followed,” said Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt in a prepared statement. “On this basis and professional advice from NVE we will assess measures, including the evacuation of people.”

The storm is forecast to hit between 6 p.m. and midnight Wednesday, with the most severe wind and snow between then and noon Thursday. Snowfall is expected to taper off Thursday afternoon, but gale and near-gale winds are forecast to continue through much of the night.

Winds are forecast to come from the east and southeast, which may result in snow accumulations more likely to trigger avalanches.

“The statistics being reported now are reminiscent of the storm on Dec. 19 of last year,” Trond Lien, a duty meteorologist for the weather service, told Svalbardposten.

NVE’s recently activiated local avalanche warning system notes the current snowpack is weak because of warm temperatures leading up to Christmas, making them vulnerable to heavier layers. An alert posted by the agency Tuesday states conditions could result in the natural release of size-three avalanches, which have a mass between 1,000 to 10,000 cubic meters and can “bury a car, destroy a small building, or break trees.”

By contrast, the avalanche that struck last year consisted of more than 50,000 cubmic meters of snow, placing it in the maximum size-four category on the European scale. But the agency is also guarded about it current prediction.

“Because of the dark season it is difficult to have a full view of snow distribution and therefore it is somewhat uncertain about avalanche danger when fully reporting then danger level,” an assessment posted at the NVE’s website Tuesday notes.

The difference in the forecasts is this week’s storm isn’t forecast to be as severe due to less predicted snowfall. Also winds during last year’s storm were forecast to reach speeds as high as 160 kilometers an hour in some areas. However, the storm alert issued by the weather service Tuesday afternoon suggests the winds – which last year blew the roofs off Longyearbyen School and a dorm in Nybyen – could be comparable.

This week’s storm may also be an indication of what Longyearbyen residents can expect during winter in the wake of the avalanche, due to a report released earlier this month that declared more than 150 residences and dorms in 34 buildings are in avalanche red zones. People in those zones – primarily in Nybyen and Lia – have already been forced to evacuate their residences twice during the past year due to extreme storms. Local emergency officials said multiple future evacuations are possible, especially with such storms expected to be more common due to climate change, until long-range preventative or relocation steps are taken.