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Abandon all hope: Svalbard’s 10 biggest stories of 2017

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We’re not going to spin it: the year known as 2017 was a disaster – literally.

An avalanche early on shook the community and its leaders to its foundations, climate change inflicted maybe its most humiliating impact on us yet, Barentsburg suffered through two fatal crashes and the hope of some kind of future in terms of Store Norske’s coal mines suffered a death far more painful than even the most pessimistic envisioned.

Still, a bad day in Svalbard beats a good day in lots of other places, which is evident in the ever-increasing number of visitors coming for ever-increasing events during ever-increasing parts of the year (the latter of which is, albeit, due to the rapid onset of climate change).

And no “top stories” list involving Svalbard would feel proper without at least one item about polar bears. So we’ll start our annual “Svalbard’s 10 Biggest Stories” with:

10. Polar bears spend lots of quality family time in/near Longyearbyen

A mother polar bear and her two cubs feast on a seal carcass near the remnants of Advent City during one of several visits near Longyearbyen last summer.Photo by Del Garcin.

There’s a few things that make a multitude of visits by a mother polar bear and two cubs in January and during late summer worthy of this list: 1) it’s yet another sign of how the animals are wandering further from traditional feeding areas as climate change dissolves the sea ice they hunt on, 2) it’s another sign of how the animals are harder to intimidate because climate change is making them increasingly desperate for food, and 3) polar bear sightings are cool and usually really rare while in town. Oh, there’s also the potential danger, as one of the visits occurred at about 5 a.m. on a dark January morning when they managed to wander along a few residential streets near UNIS before they were observed by a resident who alerted the governor’s office (it is also believed they ransacked a kayakers’ campsite in August, forcing the paddlers to take to their boats). During both summer and winter the bears made repeated approaches despite being chased away by officials using snowmobiles and helicopters. The mother bear, which is fitted with a tracker tag used by researchers, is know as a regular visitor to the area in recent years, sometimes in the presence of cubs with mixed survival rates, as part of her annual trek to various parts of the archipelago depending on the season.

9. New festivals focusing on food, literature, chamber music and more debut as part of tourism expansion

The music/poetry group Buicken performed during the inaugural Longyearbyen Literature festival in September. Screenshot of Facebook video by Nicke Lilltroll.

Much, much bigger stories about Svalbard’s tourism’s growth – including a state-of-the-art floating twin dock in Longyearbyen – are almost a certainty during the next few years. But for 2017, which saw a notable increase in ship and off-season traffic, we’re going with a huge expansion of special events designed to lure people during “off-peak” times of the year. There was the first-ever literature festival in September (a month that has typically been disastrous for previous attempted festivals), the first-ever food festival in early October (also a time of repeated failures), a choir music festival that debuted November and a chamber music festival happening in February of 2018 (although initial plans were to stage it last November). Also, while not quite new, the inaugural Toppturfestivalen took a one-day event involving the climbing of all the major summits around Longyearbyen within 24 hours and expanded into a multi-day series of outdoor recreation events. Unlike some one-and-done efforts of the past, most or all of those appear likely to make encore appearances.

8. Russian guide dies after crashing through ice while leading snowmobile expedition

Aleksandr Ometov takes photos of an ice cave. The guide working in Barentsburg died earlier this month after his snowmobile fell through the sea ice. Photo by Elnar Mansurov.

Aleksandr “Shasha” Ometov, 31, was guiding eight people on snowmobiles over the sea ice on a trip from Pyramiden to Barentsburg (part of a 25-person expedition divided into three groups) on April 27 when six member of the group broke through the ice. Four were retrieved by a rescue helicopter 48 minutes later and two who reached solid ice were rescued shortly after. The other three members of the group were found nearby on land. Ometov and a female tourist, both of whom were rescued from the water, were flown to a hospital in Troms for treatment. While the woman was released soon after, Ometov died after 19 days of of intensive care that included a leg amputation and heart surgery. It was reportedly the first time a guide has been killed during an expedition in Svalbard in the modern era. A torrent of memorials ensued from both his fellow residents in Barentsburg and visitors who only knew him for a few hours. “Sasha was our first and best friend in Barentsburg,” wrote Gilles Elkaim, a French guide spending the winter in Barentsburg. “His discretion, his modesty, his kindness to both humans and dogs warmed my heart every time our paths crossed.”

7. Another increase in electricity bills means Longyearbyen residents are paying twice what they did in 2008

A technician monitors the control room at Longyearbyen’s coal-fueled power plant, which is expected to remain the city’s main power source for at least a decade despite its controversial existence. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Longyearbyen got stiffed by the government in a number of ways in  2017 (two of which are far higher on this list), but this is a way locals will immediately feel the pain in a way going beyond the symbolic. The Longyearbyen Community Council, in response to the Norwegian government’s decision the city needed to take a bigger portion of funding the local power plant, approved a hike in electricity rates that means residents will pay twice as much in 2018 as they did ten years ago. The decision ties into a number of long-term policy debates about Longyearbyen’s future power supply, including where the coal to fuel the existing plant will come from and what source will be used during the post-coal era. But for residents of a town in a literal depression in terms of economic activity and a 12 percent loss of jobs over the course of a year, the upcoming quarterly power bills are likely to largely black out the longer-term issues.

6. Helicopter crashes into sea near Barentsburg, killing all eight passengers

A Russian Mi-8 helicopter that crashed in the sea near the heliport in Barentsburg is retrieved by a ship using a crane in November. Photo by The Governor of Svalbard.

It’s hard to imagine those final few moments – eight people getting ready to depart a helicopter on final approach to its landing site, only to find themselves rapidly abandoning the aircraft without lifejackets as it crashed into the sea too quickly for the pilots to transmit an alert. But the tragedy would grip everyone in Svalbard, as well as a large part of Russia, as officials from Norway and Russia (and a few other countries during the initial stages) searched the surface and depths of the sea, and hundreds of kilometers of coastline, for any sign of those aboard. The crash on Oct. 26 about two kilometers northeast of the Barentsburg helipad apparently was due to electrical and icing problems. On board were five Russian crew members and three Russian researchers (who were supposed to go to Pyramiden by boat to retrieve equipment for their project, but changed their plans at the last second due to bad weather). One body was found about 130 meters from the wreckage on the seabed, but the others are still missing. A search for the passengers and other clues continued until Nov. 8, at which point there wasn’t enough daylight to make further efforts practical. The helicopter’s voice recorder and GPS tracker were recovered, but the flight data recorder in the heavily damaged tail was missing its data chip. “Preliminary analysis of the cockpit voice recorder indicates that the crew apparently did not identify any technical abnormalities before the helicopter impacted the sea,” a report by The Accident Investigation Board Norway noted.

5. EU lawsuit against Norway over crab harvesting rights sets stage for massive oil drilling/Svalbard Treaty battle

The Latvian fishing vessel Senator was detained in Svalbard for illegally catching snow crabs and is now at the center of a major Arctic resources dispute. Jonas Karlsbakk / Barentssekretariatet.

It’s actually an amusing hypothetical scenario: A Czech boat captain pulled over by the Norwegian Coast Guard for catching more crabs (the seafood kind) than legally allowed sighs and asks himself “geeze, what’s the big freakin’ deal?” Considering a now full-blown legal dispute between Norway and the European Union may be headed to The Hauge the answer is clearly far more than a mere boat captain could have ever expected. In short. the dispute might literally set the stage for the Cold War of the 21st century, since the rules of harvesting crabs in the area are the same as those for extracting oil. It all comes down to an interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty: the EU says it allows them to give the OK to parties to capture natural resources in the archipelago (and its “protected zone” that extends 200 nautical miles from shorelines)), while Norway says they can regulate who does do. Norway’s courts sided (of course?) with the Norwegian government, which is why the EU is now threatening to shift to the show to the Netherlands.

4. Leakage into Svalbard Global Seed Vault requires massive and costly reconstruction

This is the “flooded” entry tunnel of the Doomsday Vault, where the water that seeps in freezes and stops well short of the sealed-off store room where the seeds are. Photo courtesy of the Norwegian Ministry of Food, Fisheries and Agriculture.

“Humanity’s future is threatened by a major development on a remote Norwegian island that is home to a ‘doomsday vault,'” exclaimed the first sentence of a story by Building a Better World News. A similar doomsday-themed article titled “The Uninhabitable Earth” was New York Magazine’s most-read article of 2017. Those and many more articles were triggered by a May 19 article in The Guardian headlined “Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts.” The problem occurred after record rainfall into the fall of 2016 caused water to seep into the entryway of the vault – far from the seeds in another sealed room 100 meters further into the mountain – freezing into ice on the walkway and causing problems with a power transformer. The leakage was also not a new development, since small amounts of water have leaked into the vault ever since it opened in 2008. But while not apocalyptic, the problem is serious, with the government announcing they will spend 37 million kroner to upgrade the entryway, dig drainage ditches, and move the power transformer and administrative offices outside the mountain (by comparison, the vault itself cost 45 million kroner to build – about 54 million kroner adjusted for inflation).

3. Avalanche destroys two apartment buildings; officials and residents both shaken at errors in “expert” assessments

An avalanche destroys two apartment buildings on Feb. 22, 2017, a few dozen meters from where 11 homes were destroyed on Dec. 19, 2015. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

There was a big snowstorm (not as big as the one that triggered the 2015 avalanche) in February that caused experts newly assigned to Longyearbyen to assess conditions. Their early-morning assessment was if an avalanche occurred it wouldn’t be big enough to hit structures. A few hours later a snowslide wiped out two apartment buildings in the same area as the 2015 disaster. While no lives were lost, it was an incident that would change the lives of many people living here forever. For starters, while there has been plenty of grumblings about emergency officials being too cautious in ordering multiple evacuations, road closures, etc. since the 2015 avalanche, the prevailing attitude turned to anger and distrust about the ability officials to adequately protect residents. Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, in an announcement several hours after the avalanche, shocked occupants of homes in the affected neighborhood by announcing homes there would be evacuated until further notice (which soon thereafter became until virtually all snow was gone from the mountains). A subsequent analysis by avalanche experts exposed a grim and scary truth… that due largely to climate change, an increasing number of “extreme” storms are causing snow conditions/accumulation is ways never before seen, meaning previous forecasting models need to be thrown out and new ones built. Until that happens – and until barriers or other preventative measures are taken in at-risk zones, a significant portion of the town will be living in permanent uncertainty. Which brings us to…

2. Governor orders indefinite evacuation of dozens of homes in at-risk avalanche areas

A map shows the area of Longyearbyen evacuated by officials after an avalanche in February. Map by The Governor of Svalbard.

Yes, this merits a separate place near the top of the list. There was the immediate event that shook people up and then there was the aftermath that is having a much more profound and long-term impact. When occupants evacuated nearly 60 apartments and other residences shortly after the avalanche, little did they know they were abandoning the buildings as permanent homes for years – and very possibly forever.  “The current arrangement of combination of local avalanche warning system possible evacuation decisions based on the advice of avalanche professionals leaves too much residual risk and unpredictability for the homes in question to be inhabited during the winter as long as measures for avalanche protection of the buildings has not been implemented,” Askholt said when announcing the second long-term evacuation when winter set in late in 2017. Furthermore, it will almost certainly mean a major redrawing of the map Longyearbyen (some of which may have happened anyhow, but now is likely to be on a vastly accelerated timetable). The Norwegian government approved emergency funding to build 100 residences in the central valley to help offset the loss of mountainside homes, but a massive buildup of residential and business buildings in those “floodplains” and the industrial area near the shore are likely to be the city’s top priority for years to come.

1. Government decides to dismantle Store Norske’s main mines instead of reopening them

The mining settlement of Svea, eyed as a site for tourism and research in the post-coal era, will instead be dismantled. Photo by Svea-Svalbard.

It was probably a pipe dream to hope the government would support the resumption of major coal mining operations by Store Norske after they were suspended at the end of 2016, even though there was a plausible argument to do so. But local residents and politicians were shocked by the harshness of the final decision. A coal price crash in 2014 sent the company into a tailspin that left it on the edge of bankruptcy until the government provided a massive bailout (in exchange from going from owning more than 99 percent of the company to owning 100 percent). But the company kept bleeding money and last year the decision was made to suspend mining at Svea and Luckefjell for up to three years in the hope pries would recover sufficiently to reopen the mines. Meanwhile, relatively small-scale mining increased somewhat at Mine 7, but the company still downsized to about 100 employees, compared to about 400 five years ago. Prices did rebound within a year to potential break-even levels, but the company continued operating at a loss due to reasons such as a low level of mining and the cost maintaining the suspended mines. The company’s board of directors last year asked the Norwegian government to either immediately reopen the mines or close them permanently. While there were plenty favoring a shutdown for economic and environmental reasons, those supporting a reopening argued the company would be writing off its 1.2 billion investment in Lunckefjell without earning an income from the mine, in addition to losing the revenue at Svea. But Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland shocked many locals by announcing in October the government was recommending dismantling of the two large mine settlements, dismissing proposals to covert the sites into tourism and research facilities. She stood her ground when 250 Longyearbyen protesters carrying torches met her in a hotel parking lot in November. “There are still many employees here and especially during the cleanup period the actual number of employees will increase significantly over a temporary period at Svea,” she said. “Store Norske supplies Svalbard with energy, and that make them an essential company both for settlements and livelihoods here in Longyearbyen.” The determination to dismantle was so strong they rejected proposals to sell the mines to private entities.

About Post Author

Mark Sabbatini

I'm a professional transient living on a tiny Norwegian island next door to the North Pole, where once a week (or thereabouts) I pollute our extreme and pristine environment with paper fishwrappers decorated with seemingly random letters that would cause a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters to die of humiliation. Such is the wisdom one acquires after more than 25 years in the world's second-least-respected occupation, much of it roaming the seven continents in search of jazz, unrecognizable street food and escorts I f****d with by insisting they give me the platonic tours of their cities promised in their ads. But it turns out this tiny group of islands known as Svalbard is my True Love and, generous contributions from you willing, I'll keep littering until they dig my body out when my climate-change-deformed apartment collapses or they exile my penniless ass because I'm not even worthy of washing your dirty dishes.
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