They spent the day digging and trudging through boot-deep snow from an overnight storm, only to get a cold shock when they were informed at 5 p.m. they had an hour to vacate their homes due to the the risk of avalanches – and most won’t be able to return until at least next spring.
“Here we go again” was expressed by more than one social media commenter about the evacuation of a couple dozen residences in the central Longyearbyen neighborhood known as Lia. Rows of homes closest to the base of Sukkertoppen have been subject to long-term evacuations the past two winters due to two major avalanches that have destroyed homes since December of 2015.
Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt has stated evacuation orders will be in place when there is significant measurable snow on the mountainside. Roughly 25 centimeters of snow fell Wednesday night and Thursday, enough to trigger the order for the first time this fall, effective as of 6 p.m. Thursday.
The long-term evacuation order applies to the following addresses: Vei 222-7, 222-9, 222-11, 222-13, 222-15, 222-17, Vei 226-10, 226-12, 226-31, 226-33, 226-35, 226-37.
Evacuations that are expected to be temporary are in effect for Vei 228-2, 228-4 A, B, C, D, 228-7, 228-9, 228-11, and 228-13 A, B, C, D, E.
Roads to the residences have been blocked off.
“The evacuation deadline will be assessed continuously in close contact with the NVE,” said Lt. Gov. Berit Sagfossen, referring to The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, whose experts analyze the risk of avalanches and landslides.
The risk level for Friday and Saturday is Level 3 (“considerable”) out of five.
“Conditions are dangerous,” a statement at NVE’s website notes. “Be careful in lee areas with wind deposited snow, typically behind ridges, ribs and in gullies. Be aware of a persistent weak layer buried by windslabs.”
The Norwegian Meteorological Institute’s long-term forecast through Dec. 9 calls for temperatures several degrees below zero, cloudy skies and occasional light snow.
Last year the long-term evacuation order for the neighborhood took effect Dec. 22, but residents had several days’ advance notice. The order was lifted at the end of May.
Displaced residents were required to register with city officials at Rabalder Cafe and Bakery, which serves as the evacuation center in such situations, with officials urging people to find their own alternative housing – something that has been increasingly emphasized in the expectation locals in at-risk homes have now had considerable time to make such arrangements. Those unable to do so were still allowed to apply for emergency housing through the city.
The evacuations are part of a large-scale housing crisis resulting from a heightened risk of avalanches and landslides in Longyearbyen, which experts are attributing to extreme storms caused by climate change and other factors. A total of 150 homes in the center of Longyearbyen (including many outside the evacuation zone) and about 100 student dorms in Nybyen are scheduled for demolition as a result. The Norwegian government is providing hundreds of millions of kroner in extra and emergency funding to build new housing and protective snow barriers.