WIND STORM/EVACUATION WATCH (UPDATES AS NECESSARY): Evacuation alert as hurricane winds of 160+ km/h, Level-Four avalanche risk forecast Thursday for Svalbard


Update (4:50 p.m. Wednesday): Evacuations ordered by 8 a.m. Thursday for 29 residences in Lia near Sukkertoppen and 81 university student dorms in Nybyen.

Original story: A storm expected to bring hurricane-force winds of more than 160 kilometers an hour to some parts of Svalbard (strong gale winds of 80+ km/h in Longyearbyen) and extreme avalanche risk conditions Thursday is prompting The Governor of Svalbard to advise residents in at-risk areas to prepare to evacuate their residences.

“If it is decided to evacuate, we will inform the public Wednesday,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement. “Notifications will be posted on the homepage of the governor and the Longyearbyen Community Council during the coming days. The Longyearbyen Community Council is encouraging people in Lia and Nybyen to find an ‘evacuation friend’ to stay with and prepare for a possible evacuation situation. If Nybyen is evacuated, The University Centre in Svalbard will contact the students in Nybyen and organize an evacuation together with the student welfare organization.”

Winds in Longyearbyen are expected to increase beginning Thursday morning and reach gale force by noon, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. East/northeast winds are expected to hit peak speeds between 6 p.m. and midnight, and remain at gale force for several hours into Friday morning.

Between 1.5 and 4.4 millimeters of precipitation (light to moderate snow) is forecast during that period. But a Level Four (“high”) avalanche risk level is forecast by The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

“Wind with hurricane strength will most likely carry considerable amounts of snow into the west-facing terrain areas and it is to be expected that will trigger extensive natural landslide activity,” the forecast states.

The wind conditions are somewhat less than those preceding an avalanche on Sukkertoppen in December of 2015 that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people in the central Longyearbyen neighborhood known as Lia. The winds up to 120 km/h also blew the roof off of Longyearbyen School onto a nearby football pitch, as well as the roof of a UNIS dorm in Nybyen (which subsequently was demolished). Significantly less snow is forecast during Thursday’s storm, but there have been several centimeters of fresh snow during the past several days.

Storm conditions are forecast to be much more extreme in exposed areas of Svalbard, according to the meteorological institute.

“The lowlands are expected to experience full to strong storms with heavy gusts of 35-40 m/s (126-144 km/h), and in some locals very strong gusts above 40 m/s,” the forecast notes. “Elsewhere in Spitsbergen, hurricane-exposed places are expected to receive gusts above 45 m/s (160 km/h).”

Wind and storm alerts have also been issued for much of northern Norway and news reports indicate Yromsø is already experiencing significant traffic disruptions.