STORM UPDATE: ‘I was scared when I saw it,’ says UNIS geology student who discovered mountain cracks above Vei 232 apartments


Aleksandra Smyrak-Sikora said she stayed home Tuesday because she was feeling a little ill. But when she saw huge cracks in the mountain above her apartment by the faint light of midday she felt far worse.

“I was scared when I saw it,” said Smyrak-Sikora, a PhD student studying geology at The University Centre in Svalbard who has conducted previous landslide research and took the photo above. “It was several segments.”

The cracks were about 30 meters from a cluster of apartments on Vei 232 in Gruvedalen. She contacted The Governor of Svalbard and geology experts at UNIS, and after analyzing the hillside an order was given at about 4:15 p.m. to the occupants of a dozen apartments – including the one she shares with her husband and 15-month-old daughter – to evacuate them by 6 p.m.


A resident of an apartment on Vei 232 beneath Gruvedalen loads belongings into a vehicle during a hasty evacuation of a dozen residences Tuesday evening. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Smyrak-Sikora said it was difficult to estimate the length and depth of the cracks in the dim light, but one appeared to be 60 meters long. Another “wasn’t big, only 10 meters, but it could get much bigger.”

The residences evacuated are Vei 232.522, 232.524, 232.526, 232.528, 232.530, 232.532, 232.534, 232.536. 232.538, 232.540, 232.542 and 232.544.

They join about 140 people who were forced out of their homes and guest lodges Monday afternoon due to landslide and flooding threats caused by a near-record deluge of rain Monday night and Tuesday morning. But while the first group of evacuees is holding out hope they can return home as soon as Wednesday, Smyrak-Sikora said occupants of the apartments on Vei 232 may be in for a longer ordeal.


Workers put up barricades at the entry road to an apartment complex declared unsafe Tuesday due to cracks in the mountain above them. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“First we decided to grab only important stuff and here (at the evacuation center) earlier, but then a person from UNIS said it could be longer,” Smyrak-Sikora said. “There was still 30 minutes so left so then we began grabbing a bunch of stuff.”

She said the family is staying at the home of a UNIS colleague who is on the mainland for three weeks.

The governor also announced Tuesday afternoon the closure of a 500-meter stretch of road on the coastline at Vestpynten (the dirt road extending to cabins beyond Svalbard Airport due to unstable soil) and the dog kennel area just outside Longyearbyen – which sustained landslide damage Monday night – is also closed.