Dialing it up a notch: Landslides, mining shutdown, record rain and heat among Svalbard’s 11 biggest stories of 2016


Let’s set aside niceities: in all honestly, this list is lunacy because it will be the job of historians to document just how profoundly Svalbard changed in 2016. Because those change are of such historical proportions it will be decades before all impacts are truly known.

But for starters, consider this: at the end of 2016, the percentage of mining employees in the workforce was apparently seven percent, down from 30-40 percent in 2012 and perhaps 25 percent near the beginning of the crisis last year. Tourism jobs, meanwhile seem to be in the midst of an opposite trend in numbers. And you could feed reports about the number of kids into a wood chipper and use those airborne fragments to get results as consistent as the official data.

That’s just the people and what they do here…ignoring the suddently urgent question of where they’re going to live. Hundreds were forced to abandon their homes up to four times within a year – in some cases permanently – and it appears this is just the beginning of a New Whirled Order where every blizzard suddently has locals delving deeply into their spritual side (religious or alcoholic).´

Forget Brexit and Wiggy Trump, whose Earth-shaking election wins will likely profoundly affect Svalbard in 2017 rather than 2016. Forget the Norwegian government’s hard-right swing in appointing our new overlords (who don’t seem to have a clue about this place) since a debate in Parliament this spring and the national election this fall will say far more about what’s happening in that regard. And, dare we say, forget those academic elitists…sure they revealed more scary secrets about the myth of climate change and the reasons we’ll have a severe case of the crabs in the future (like that’s a bad thing), but after a while endless warnings about the end of the world are so…ordinary.

With all that in mind, here is Icepeople’s dialed-up list of the 11 biggest stories of 2016:

11. BBC docu-soap “Svalbard: Life on the Edge” debuts, plans to return
The film crews were a constant presence during the first half of the year, and the show itself was obviously seen by plenty of visitors during the second half of the year. Still, it probably wouldn’t have landed on this list if the show execs hadn’t decided the ratings and revenue justified returning for a second season. Also, since the author of this list was one of the dozen people followed around during filming, accusastions of bias can certainly be made. Outsiders seemed to find the series more realistic than locals, many of whom called the portrayal of life here overly dramatic. But the show almost certainly motivated some people to visit who might not have heard of this place before and that should grow if the series ends up with a “Deadliest Catch” or “Ice Road Truckers” prominence.

10. 30 people forced to hastily evacuate Gamle Skyehuset; other structures face similar peril due to climate damage
And this is the other story where the author has to disclose personal involvement since he was among those forced to move out of his home in about two hours in February. But this was a much more significant event, and not just for occupants who lost many of their possessions and owners who lost all equity in their homes (an issue that remains in legal limbo). It foreshadows structural stabliity problems that exist and are likely to spread to other places in Longyearbyen as the effects of climate change  worsen. A few cabins along the shoreline near the airport, for instance, face the threat of being washed into the sea by a single fierce storm due to erosion. Thawing permafrost – which caused massive cracking in the fundation and walls of Gamle Sykehuset – is beginning to affect other buildings as well, such as Basecamp Spitsbergen which had to close three of its guest rooms. An expert interviewed by Svalbardposten in November said a large percentage of buildings older tha 30 years may face similar problems. Government and university agencies are planning comprehensive studies of the situation during the coming year.

9. Head prosecutor overturns decision not to investigate fatal Dec. 19, 2015, avalanche as a criminal matter
While not directly related to the structural problems just mentioned, the outcome of this legal dispute may be an indicator of who – if anybody – is liable for houses and other structures in areas exposed to damage from natural elements. A regional prosecutor decided in June there were no grounds to seek criminal charges related to the Dec. 19, 2015, avalanche that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people. The decision was formally protested the parents of Nikoline Røkenes, 2, one of the people killed in the avalanche. Among their complaints were reports dating back to 1992 stated the area where the avalanche occurred could be exposed to such slides every 20 to 30 years, yet the city of Longyearbyen permitted and Store Norske (the property’s owner) built houses there without taking any precautionary measures such as barriers or a warning system. The Director of Public Prosecutions stated in October the matter would be investigated after all, but emphsized that does not mean concrete evidence of criminal conduct has been found. Meanwhile, the city and Store Norske have stated they are willing to discuss settlements with the family that do not include admissions of legal liability.

8. Russian tourism in Svalbard up 500 percent since 2014, replaces coal mining as main revenue source
While (obvious spoiler) tourism in Svalbard will appear higher up on this list, recent developments in the Russian settlements are notable enough to merit a seperate mention. Rennovation projects in Barentsburg and Pyramiden dragged out for nearly a decade, with the government officially acknowledging at times that both the pace and costs of the work were dismal. But Trust Arktikugol, the state-owned company that manages the settlements, has finally completed upgrades of the hotels in the settlements, built an inexpensive hostel in Barentsburg, expanded its recreation offerings and – no small thing – finally joined the official Svalbsard tourism assication so its offerings are easily available online (the company’s previous online presence was essentially stuck in 1995). While some visitors have stated the settlement has lost of its Soviet-era character – and some employees say the number of visitors trying to steal items and vandalize property is rising – the settlements are experiencing some of their most optimistic times in decades.

7. Political and natural heat result in worst Barneo season ever; Russia says it will move operations
This microcosm of the tensions between Russia and Norway (and the rest of the West) had major implications for expeditions trying to reach the North Pole last year, those attempting to do so in the future and local businesses who could lose the more than 20 million kroner the expeditions spend during a three-week timespan. The problems began during the 2015 season, when Russian Deputy Minister Dmitry Rogozin made a stop in Longyearbyen on his way to the camp, thumbing his nose at Norway’s ban on him and others involved in the Ukraine crisis. Norway responded with tougher entry and passenger manifest requirements for flights which, combined with frreakish weather that caused several ice runway cracks and threw schedules in havoc, made it impossible for many expeditions to reach the camp. As a result, Russia announced after last year’s season it planned to move its logistics base to Franz Josef Land starting this year, although officials subsequently admitted infrastructure there isn’t sufficeint for the coming season. But if the camp’s 15th season this year is the last operating through Longyearbyen, the tourism industry may have to scramble to fill the gap – among other things, it represents nearly 10 percent of Svalbard Airport’s total income.

6. Parliament gets draft of new “white paper” of policy goals for Svalbard
Locals held their breath and waited…and waited. And when it finally came out people were more likely to be red than blue in the face, as what was supposed to be a dramatic blueprint for Svalbard’s post-mining future was basically a vague collection of previously discussed platitudes and actions. The announced “hasty” revision of the document came three years earlier than scheduled due to the mining crisis that erupted in late 2014, but the release of the draft paper didn’t occur until May of last year. It essentially repeated a plege to coal mining on life support by maintaining shutdown facilities for the next few years while encouraging an expansion of both the size and diversity of private industries, plus an expansion of education and research activities. Amendments were later added pledging to fully fund avalanche-prevention measures and expressing a desire to define a post-coal power source (including a possible cable from the mainland). But the full Parliament’s role to date has been a general discussion of the draft for a couple of hours in November. Lawmakers are expected to pass a final version this spring, so this may end up ranking higher on next year’s list.

5. Government changes law to allow fish processing plants in Svalbard
Unlike the white paper, this bit of government action had immediate and substantial results. Norway in January amneded its Marine Resources Act to give Svalbard the same commercial fishing and processing regulations as the mainland. That prompted several major companies to immediately begin exploring potential sites and facilities in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. Industry officials said climate change is causing popular commercial species to thrive in Svalbard’s waters, yet the waters remain cold enough that species like snow crab can be stored live at much lower costs than the mainland. Numerous regulatory questions remain to be resolved, but officials say plants may begin operating within a few years.

4. Longyearbyen experiences warmest and wettest year in recorded history
The freakish weather during the past year is responsible for several items on this list, but it merits its own mention due to the sheer scale of the abnormalities and the prospect they may be the “new normal” for the area. The average temperature at Svalbard Airport for the year was minus 0.1 degrees Celsius, or 6.5 degrees Celsius above normal. A record 310 millimeters of precipitation fell during the year, 63.2 percent more than normal and soundly topping the previous record of 267.9 millimeters in 2012. Other figures: Longyearbyen has experienced 73 straight month of above average temperatures, average temepratures in the region have risen more than 2.2 degrees during the past 26 years and will rise nearly another three degrees by 2050 at the current rate.

3. Many Longeyarbyen tourism operators report record year
A weak currency, more flights and an increasing marketing focus on the “off-season” helped many local tour operators rake in record earnings in 2016. That’s also hugely welcome news for local and national politicians who have declared they want the industry to double its income – whiuch may mean a tripling of visitors – to help replace lost coal mining jobs. A report from Statistics Norway issued late last year showed tourism now accounts for 30 percent of all jobs, with mining at 17 percent. Except those numbers are from 2015 – meaning the ratio is far more skewed now since Store Norke has shed roughly half of the employees included in the report during the past year.

2. Avalanches, landslides force short-term evacuations and long-term housing dilemmas
It’s very arguable this should occupy the top spot because hundreds of residents are now nervously watching the hills every time there’s a major storm, wondering if they’ll be forced to evacuate their homes after three such orders within a year. Not to mention nervous officials who have to make such decisions and are faced with complicated and costly options to either protect at-risk areas or permanently move people from them. And since climate change is expected to make extreme storms more severe and frequent, this will remain near or at the top of the list until a solution is enacted.

1. Store Norske “celebrates” 100th birthday by completing shutdown of nearly all coal mining
We’ve been watching it happen since late 2014, perhaps gone through the worst shocks and goodbyes before last year, and the year even ended on an optimistic note with a 100-year birthday party and rebounding coal prices. But for the first time in Longyearbyen’s peacetime history, coal mining has ceased to be a dominent industry here. Not much more needs to be said.