Far more homes in the center of Longyearbyen are vulnerable to avalanches than previously thought. Spending 100 million to protect 37 residences and other parts of the city center with various snow barriers is being recommended. But there appears to be no practical way to protect about 140 more residences – meaning even more costly teardown and rebuilding efforts for a town already in a large-scale housing crisis.
Those grim findings were presented Thursday evening in a new report by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE), the latest in more than two years of increasingly pessimistic assessments about the safety of structures along the mountainsides of Longyearbyen.
Among the key findings is the areas most at-risk now extends significantly below merely the line of residences closest to the mountainside where two major avalanches have occurred since December of 2015 – and the area of buildings with a theoretical risk of being hit now extends to major buildings such as Svalbardbutikken, Svalbar, Kroa and the Svalbard Hotell.
The practical upshot for many residents is more of the bad news they’ve already been hearing: more people forced to abandon housing they live in and/or own, more short-term evacuations during severe storms, and a need for a lot more money from a government not always quick to support the protective measures and new housing recommended by experts.
“Until the avalanche barriers are in place, we must rely on even more frequent evacuations,” said Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt in a prepared statement in response to the report. “This is a completely unsustainable situation for a large part of Longyearbyen’s population.”
The report recommends three snow barriers along the bottom of Sukkertoppen, the mountain where the two avalanches that destroyed homes occurred. But the two longest barriers are well below numerous apartment buildings and other residences, and Askholt said those buildings may be declared permanently uninhabitable.
“The measure entails that all three proposed barriers from the NVE should be set up and that after that there will be no housing on the upper side of the ramparts,” she said. “That will require state-owned funds and we must trust that grants will come from central government.”
Many of the homes in the at-risk area already empty at present, as Askholt has used her authority under Norway’s Police Act to order the evacuation of about 60 residences closest to Sukkertoppen as long as there is significant snow on the mountain. The order was first enacted following a landslide in February of 2017 that destroyed two apartment buildings and, while the order was lifted at the beginning of last summer, it was reenacted in December.
The order has resulted in complaints – and preliminary legal action – from some property owners who say the residences are essentially worthless since they cannot be occupied year-round and the existence of the buildings themselves is in question. Furthermore, there is considerable uncertainty about what – if any – compensation the owners might receive from insurance, the government or other involved parties if the homes are permanently lost.
Meanwhile, the evacuations – combined with the loss of housing due to the avalanches and other destructive events – have put Longyearbyen in a severe housing crisis to the point where numerous people say they’re being forced to leave because there’s no place for them to live even though they’re employed. In addition, rents have risen sharply, causing what some call an unworkable financial strain.
An assessment by Longyearbyen’s municipal government is it will be about 300 million kroner cheaper over a 50-year period to build new homes in safe areas compared to construct avalanche barriers and continue evacuations during high-risk periods.
As for how the Norwegian government will respond to the report, initial indications are it may be like other crises of the past several years involving avalanches, housing, coal mining and other issues: no short-term action or commitments.
Longyearbyen residents and officials will get a chance during the next few days to discuss the situation with the government ministry that has administrative oversight of Svalbard – although it might have the full attention of leadership due the turmoil of a major political battle with Parliament. Recently appointed Minister of Justice and Public Security Sylvi Listhaug cancelled her first planned visit to Longyearbyen in that role Sunday and Monday because a coalition of parties in Parliament is challenging the appointment due to highly controversial stances on immigration, so Ministry State Secretary Knut Morten Johansen is taking her place.
“When there is a danger to life and health it always has high priority, but I can not sit here and anticipate decisions with the kind of amount this is about,” Johansen told NRK, saying no immediate legislation is planned. “Now we must first come to Longyearbyen and talk to residents, local government and of course the governor.”
But while the government’s response might not be speedy, plenty of locals are already primed for a battle that began some time ago.
“Either Parliament believes that it is right that the people of Longyearbyen should live with the evacuations, or they think it is not right,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen wrote in a message on his Facebook page. “If Parliament assumes that it is acceptable, I believe that the responsibility for the individual citizens’ safety rests on the shoulders of Parliament.”