DEMOLITION OF ‘RED ZONE’ HOMES BEGINS: 21 residential buildings in Lia scheduled to be torn down by next June

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The long-delayed demolition of about 140 Longyearbyen residences considered unsafe to live in because they’re exposed to high avalanche and landslide risks began Tuesday and is scheduled to be completed by next June, according to officials.

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An overhead photo shows areas in the center of Longyearbyen considered at risk of being hit by avalanches every 100 years (red), 500 years (dark yellow) and 1,000 years (light yellow). The red-zone threat, considered officially unacceptable, as well as the other two zones extend down from the mountainside significantly further than previous estimates during the past few years. Image by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

Apartments and other residences in 21 buildings in the neighborhood near the center of town known as Lia have stood empty since spring when residents were ordered to leave due to plans to begin demolition this May or June. But planning and hiring a company to do the work delayed the scheduled start of the project until the end of summer and then again until now.

While winter weather may present challenges, the work is beginning now because of avalanche barriers planned in the area to protect homes that will remain standing, said Marit Devik, property manager for Store Norske, which is overseeing the project.

“We have to remove the buildings before we build this barrier because that’s where the construction will be,” she said.  “We have to be finished by May or June, so we are rushing this.”

Initial demolition is taking place on Vei 226, which Devik said is scheduled to continue for the next couple of months.

“I hope we will be finished at Vei 226 in February, and then we can go over the Vei 222 and 224,” she said.

The initial work that started Tuesday is to prepare the insides of the houses for their ultimate demolition.

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The avalanche alert system for Longyearbyen, which was activated for the winter on Dec. 1, shows the risk level as “moderate” as demolition begins on the homes in Lia. Chart by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

The work started on the same day the Norwegian Meteorological Institute issued a storm warning due to strong gale winds expected to hit Longyearbyen by midday Thursday. Longyearbyen’s avalanche alert system also was activated for the winter on Dec. 1, with the risk level rated “considerable” for Sunday and Monday (Level 3), and “moderate” (Level 2) for Tuesday and Wednesday – although evacuations of the area generally aren’t considered unless a Level 4 or 5 (the maximum) risk is present.

“This is a project where everything depends on the weather,” Devik said. “We can set a time plan, but when bad weather comes we have to make changes.”

Norsk Saneringsservice AS was selected from among five bidders, including two local companies. It has 120 employees and several branches in Norway, and is hoping to perform additional demolition work scheduled in Longyearbyen and at the Svea mine that is being dismantled after operations were halted.

“For us, this is a very common demolition job,” Torbjørn Haugo, general manager of Norsk Saneringsservice, told Svalbardposten in November after his company was awarded the contract.  “Perhaps the biggest challenge will be weather and winter.”

Demolition of the Lia homes is part of a larger project that includes building a series of snow barriers to protect homes in the area that will remain standing, and dismantling about 100 university student dorms in Nybyen because of their exposure to avalanches and landslides. The University Centre in Svalbard is expected to cease usage of the dorms at the end of the academic year.

The measures follow two avalanches in Lia in 2015 and 2017 that destroyed about 20 homes and killed two people. Subsequent expert analysis showed climate change is making extreme storms likely to trigger avalanches and landslides more common, and affecting a larger area of homes than previously thought to be vulnerable.

One bit of good news for some residents near the center of town is city officials earlier this year were considering demolishing an additional 41 homes due to their exposure, but abandoned the idea in October after stability tests on the mountain above them were conducted by Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

Residents who were forced to evacuate their homes were allowed back in during September and October to remove furnishings and other large belongings, part of an effort to minimize the garbage and debris from the demolition that will have to be shipped to the mainland, Devik said.

“We are trying to use everything we can use,” she said. “People were taking out kitchens, bathrooms, everything.”

Marit said her company is also salvaging building materials, both for reuse in Longyearbyen and at the request of the demolition company to make their efforts easier.

“We are taking out doors and windows,” she said. “We are trying to reuse clean materials again.”