Within a couple of hours, the weather forecast changed the general opinion at The University Centre in Svalbard from “all fieldwork is cancelled” to “we need to evacuate Nybyen.”
Svalbard, known to be an Arctic dessert, has experienced some unusual warm weeks, in fact the warmest October in recorded weather history for Longyearbyen. This has caused large landmasses, normally embedded in permafrost to become unstable and start sliding. The last big landslide was just next to Longyearbyen Cemetery about three weeks ago (Oct. 15), causing people to be extra careful about the area. The Governor of Svalbard recommended people to cancel planned hikes, even on routes generally described as being safe and easy for unexperienced hikers.
With the weather forecast for Longyearbyen looking grim for some days already, the first precaution on Monday was canceling all planned field trips, something that had been done just after the last series of landslides around Advendalen.
Later during the day, around 12:30 p.m., Fred Skancke Hansen, director of HSE and infrastructure at UNIS, in cooperation with the governor decided to evacuate all 86 students from Brakke 4, 9, 11 and 13 in Nybyen, and temporarily house them at Guest Huset and Sjøskrenten near the university. This was meant to be a preventive measure since there was no immediate threat to the students in Nybyen.
All students were informed via Facebook (both through UNIS staff and members of the UNIS student council) and e-mail, that buses would be provided to bring all students that where currently at UNIS to Nybyen. There they would have one hour to pack their most necessary items. They were asked to bring clothing and other items needed to be able to stay away from Nybyen for up to three days in case the severe weather would not allow to return to the their dorms within 24 hours.
Adrian Pop, a master’s student who has been living in Nybyen since 2014, called the evacuation well-structured and all necessary information was provided in a timely manner. He also praised the efficiency of UNIS staff, calling them “nice, calm and well organized.”
The only thing that should be changed for future possible evacuations, according to students, is having a clearer line of information. At the beginning of the evacuation some uncertainties had come up, since the information shared by the student council was taken directly from the governor. Additional information had to be provided by Hansen to provide clarify where to meet, where to go and how long the evacuation might be.
After everybody had been brought down to UNIS, – using the busses that usually provide airport shuttle service – an information meeting was held where all displaced students and some members of the staff where informed about the current situation.
“We don’t expect anything to happen and this is just a safety precaution,” Hansen told the assembly.
Prof. Ole Humlum, a landslide expert, said “we don’t expect the storm to be like the one in December of last year since back then we had a long period of cold weather before the storm, leading to an avalanche.” During that storm Barrack 10 lost its roof, something that is not likely to happen to the other barracks since after December 2015 their roofs had been improved.
Altogether the evacuation had been calm and very well structured. Some students even described the atmosphere as being “just like a school trip” since, with the excellent help and information by UNIS staff, all 86 students stayed calm and stress free.