Washout: Rain leaves locals and visitors hoping to get outdoors high and dry; little snow in forecast as cold returns

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Janet Petersen was hoping to celebrate her 70th birthday with a long-anticipated dogsledding trip in Svalbard. But that wish and much of the rest of their itinerary was washed away by yet another spell of freakish heat accompanied by rain that turned surfaces everywhere in a winter wasteland.

She and her husband Jon, who works at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, decided before Christmas to visit Svalbard, but discovered upon landing Tuesday afternoon conditions were decidedly less than favorable. They ended up taking a taxi tour of Longyearbyen after a Snow Cat tour was cancelled Wednesday and Janet said her hopes of dogsledding Thursday were dissolving fast.

“I kind of halfway hoped, but didn’t think it would happen because everything else was cancelled,” she said.

Above-zero temperatures, soaring to six degrees Celsius at one point in Longyearbyen and Svea, are putting the plans of many locals and visitors on ice, and causing various nuisances such as swamping snowmobiles parked on what was heavy snowpack. Freezing temperatures are forecast to return Sunday – and plunge to the historical February average of minus 16 degrees Celsius by midweek – but with no precipitation in the forecast those days the impact during at least part of the peak tourism season may be substantial.

Ultimately the Petersens slept in late and spent a few hours at Svalbard Museum during the day. But, after celebrating Janet’s birthday with a slice of cheesecake during the afternoon, both said the trip was worthwhile as they prepared to depart on Friday.

“We’re fortunate because we live in Oslo, so it’s not like traveling halfway around the world,” Jon said. “And she’s celebrating her 70th birthday above the Arctic Circle.”

The couple said they plan to return during the summer since Janet is an avid bird watcher. And Jon, a former wildlife scientist, said this trip was a chance to indulge in some of his personal interests, including long-time locals talking about changes in bird and marine mammal migration patterns due to climate change.

“Just to see the entrance to the seed vault is something,” he added. “I’ve always wanted to see it. So we’ve enjoyed our trip here.”

The unusual weather was more frustrating for a trio of women participating in the Arctic Nature Guide program who, instead of providing winter safety training to local sixth-grade students,  were sitting around a topographic map of the area in a cafe trying to figure out if there were any accessible places to visit.

“The snow we’re supposed to be building things with is rapidly melting and the kids would probably drown,” said Rhiannon Pritchard, a participant in the program from the United Kingdom.

She, Elena Stautzebach and Camilla Johnsen said the melting means they’re having to focus on theoretical rather than practical training, and the prospects of getting out just for fun are also less than promising.

“Sometimes when the weather closes you in you feel a little bit stuck,” Pritchard said. “I think we’re just waiting for more snow so we can get away from town.”

Unfavorable weather also forced a delegation of officials from various ministries visiting Svalbard to discuss Arctic issues to cancel visits to Ny-Ålesund and Svea, according to Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

“They has their meetings here in town,” he said.

Multiple messages were posted on local social media pages showing snowmobiles in deep puddles and other problematic situations, in the hope their owners would rescue the machines before the coming deep freeze essentially paralyzes them.