We escaped the howler unscathed. The howling, not so much.
Red-alert avalanche maps, headlines hollering about hurricanes and fears of fast flying objects sent Longyearbyen citizens scrambling for shelter while there was literally no wind at the miner’s statute in the town square at noon Thursday. And folks waited…and waited…for the big bad winds to blow their (or somebody’s) house down.
Nothing of the sort happened (although certain folks surely got a shot of shake, rattle and roll – and it wasn’t at the couple of pubs defying the shutdown mentality of virtually all other establishments). Which had some old-time-tough folks questioning whether we were now weather wimps even while the worst winds were roaring.
“Storm!? Come on, this is just a few snowflakes,” wrote Birger Amundsen, an author and former Svalbardposten editor whose experience in the archipelago dates back more than 40 years, in a Facebook post that quickly triggered an avalanche of about 140 responses in a couple of days.
“What happened to the people furthest north? As soon as there is a slight increase in wind everyone bangs on what cooking pans and knick-knacks they have, and shout and gnash their teeth about storms. Are there only paper people left on the island? I’ve said it before, and repeat: Tie on a fur hat and get out in the weather. It is fresh and fine, and in no way any reason to gather on the sofa in anxiety and trembling.”
Sure enough, some strapping souls sounded off on their snow-filled sojourns from sturdier times.
“I was up there in winter 62-63, a lot of storms then and not so many houses at the time, but there were walls and rooftops that flew off,” wrote Sigrid Skeiseide, who now lives in Tysvær. “I remember we almost had to crawl to Huset, but to Huset we were going. Nobody thought it might be dangerous.”
And so a friendly feud was fought in this forum and a few others where folks posted similar content. Until…some harsh words about harsh realities in recent years were revived as a reminder of why the perceived excess of anxiety and caution exist.
“Oh yeah, we did this before,” wrote Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, one of the so-called “new generation” who’s the leader of the local Green Party and member of the Longyearbyen Community Council. “On with hat and snow goggles, and out on a polar expedition to the pub. When the governor closed the pub, we went to the afterparty. I think I tore a little beard on the way home.”
That was the night of Dec. 18, 2015, when the worst storm in nearly 40 years struck and the day before a historic avalanche struck near the center of town.
“The next day the afterparty venue was crushed and the host died,” Rotevatn added in his comment. “The neighbor’s girl of two was was well. It is THAT that has happened to the people here in the north. It’s strange if you don’t have that with you. Thank God that your disrespectful attitudes belong to the scrap of history.”
Rotevatn’s comment and a number of similar remarks by others didn’t halt those questioning if too many now have a soft storm mentality, but did alter the discussion in a different direction.
“I was in Svalbard when the tragic accident in 2015 you refer to happened and am here as well today,” wrote Arne Kristoffersen, who came to Longyearbyen as a miner in 1980 and became a guiding pioneer when he started his own company a decade later. “The accident in 2015 shouldn’t have happened, there isn’t any need for more discussion about that case. But I agree with Birger Amundsen’s statements here. We don’t get back those who unfortunately passed away by being overly cautious today. But we risk that future citizens lose respect for important weather forecasts in the future that may result in several unnecessary accidents.”
Similar exasperation was voiced during the months after that avalanche when recently appointed Gov. Kjerstin Askholt ordered multiple evacuations of homes and guest facilities due to forecasts of intense snow and rain storms, prompting plenty of complaints about an abundance of caution.
A little more than a year later, on Feb. 21, 2017, both Askholt and the complainers were dealt a crushing blow when two apartment buildings near the first avalanche site that still had people in them were destroyed because she and the experts were on the wrong side of a judgement call a few hours earlier about whether to evacuate the buildings due to an overnight storm. An analysis of that avalanche showed, among other things, historical trends used to gauge avalanche risk because climate change is altering patterns of snowfall and accumulation, meaning hillsides and settlements not previously considered at-risk must now be considered as such.
Which resulted in today’s governing reality: most homes in at-risk areas were evacuated for the winter back in December when the first serious storm occurred, more than a 100 others considered at-risk from Thursday’s storm were evacuated about eight hours before the onset of the worst of the storm and the governor recommended businesses shut down three hours beforehand.
“The biggest change I incidentally have marked me the three years I’ve lived here is that the whole city is closing several hours before the storm sets,” wrote Ingrid Ballari Nilssen, marketing director for Svalbardposten. Before the 2015 avalanche “it was the same type of weather, but then people were out at pub in the evening and all stores were open during the daytime.”
Not lost on some of those engaged in the latest post-storm debate is modern technology such as instant access to news and weather from virtually anywhere offers information to those vulnerable to major storms – to both their benefit and detriment.
Instant weather access and alerts means people outdoors or at work sites well outside of town can get to safe locations, potentially avoiding situations that resulted in fatalities many years ago, some noted. At the same time, most media reports about the approaching storm featured headlines warning of hurricane-force winds of 45 meters-per-second (more than 160 kilometers an hours) – which applied only to the most exposed parts of Svalbard, not in the main area of Longyearbyen where maximum winds of “only” 25 meters-per-second were forecast.
That said, the relatively-exposed Svalbard Airport experienced peak winds of about 32 meters-per-second, the fifth-highest speed since measurements began in 1992. Also, the forecast wind speeds approached those from the 2015 storm, when the roof was torn off Longyearbyen School and a dorm housing students from The University Centre in Svalbard.
There’s also the irony of the squabble taking place on social media, where everyone had a power source, online connection and enough comfort to type sardonic stances (theoretically somebody could have been posting on a satellite phone while huddled in a hasty snow shelter during a hurricane far from settlements, but we’ll skip a step in diligent reporting and assert none of the chatters were doing so).
And social media being what it is, much of the debate eventually focused on whether chatters opining on the sturdiness and wisdom of people past and present were making unfair personal attacks in the process – especially after a few sharp-tongued exchanges by Amundsen (telling “a somewhat arrogant Rotevatn” to “pipe down”) and Rotevatn (“calm down, old know-it-all, and swallow your macho attitudes in the process”).
Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, in his own Facebook post following the storm, stated he understands the varying attitudes about the abundance of caution officials and some residents possess, but with limited emergency resources and previous debates when disasters actually occurred a safe mentality is not a soft one.
“Because although some believe it, a roof doesn’t need to blow off to respect the weather,” he wrote. “For that reason, ‘less weather’ also does not make our decisions about both evacuation and closure of various services irrational. People’s confidence goes first and we have to make decisions both professionally and based on experience…to predict the weather is not exact science. But we must still act as if forecasts are right and take into account what we have experienced before.”
Those words won approval from Elise Strømseng, a friend and bandmate of Atle Husby, 42, a teacher and musician (and the host Rotevatn referred to) who was killed in the 2015 avalanche.
“I’m proud of our city and how the authorities, people, businesses, dog kennels, yes – all – solved and prepared,” she wrote. “We are starting to get good at this drill, little Longyearbyen. It was also good that things didn’t get as bad as feared.”