Deadly European snowpocalypse, Russian GPS jamming, oil drilling fiascos – here’s how Svalbard’s non-disaster storm made disaster news elsewhere


It wasn’t just locals blowing it when it came to worries about last wind’s wind storm. It somehow showed up in global stories about storms in Europe that killed at least 26 people, fears about Mother Nature’s wrath as Norway’s government strives for “peak oil” in a few years and Russia allegedly jamming crucial GPS signals during the storm.

Yeah, some of those are a reach, but then so is linking the Doomsday Vault with preserving poop on Earth and mice sperm in space, so such surreality is just what the world sees as normal in Svalbard.

Thus, the mention more than 100 residences in Longyearbyen were evacuated due to avalanche fears made it into a huge percentage of the coverage of winter storms throughout Europe that triggered actual avalanches and fatalities. While often a short paragraph toward the end of such articles, the fact Longyearbyen has resorted to such measures during severe storms in recent years obviously stands out among so many other snow-hit towns across the continent.

Some of the other tie-ins, which some might feel venture into the absurd, also reflect other “extreme” perceptions many have of Svalbard when it comes to issues the archipelago is increasingly facing as it becomes a central part of the “Arctic Cold War” battleground due to climate change and other factors.

Of immediate concern to Norwegian officials during the most recent storm, which disrupted areas throughout northern Norway, was the alleged interference by Russia in critical communications signals.

“On Thursday, a strong wind with snow moves in over the Barents Sea causing troubles from Svalbard in the north to Troms and Finnmark on the mainland,” an article in The Independent Barents Observer begins. “The storm hits the northernmost part of Norway simultaneously as yet another jamming of GSP signals has been discovered in the border areas to Russia’s Kola Peninsula.”

It’s the fifth such incident since the fall of 2017 and, while a debate about Svalbard’s emergency preparedness (and lack thereof) is already heating up due to recent local events such as a trawler stranded for the past two weeks in the northernmost part of the archipelago, bringing rassle-rousing Russians into the equation adds a twisted bit of turbulence.

“In case of emergency on land, at sea or in the air, loss of GPS may lead to a higher risk of navigation error, causing much longer time to locate a person or a group of people in distress,” Bent-Ove Jamtli, director of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Northern Norway (JRCC), told the Observer.

The news site brought the storm into another story the same day focusing on Norway’s plans to greatly ramp up its oil drilling efforts, especially in the Barents Sea where licenses have already been issued to sites within naked-eye view of Bjønøya (literally right on the other side of the boundary where exploration is prohibited).

“As a big storm was sweeping over the northern parts of the country, paralyzing transportation and economic activity,” the article states in an opening similar to the GPS story, “Bente Nyland took the floor in the Oslo premises of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. The directorate director made clear that she had good news to tell. The Norwegian oil and gas production is now about to significantly increase, Nyland said. After 15 years of falling production, the output is bouncing back and a new peak oil is expected in 2023.”

However, the aggressive effort comes as other government entities (not to mention a proliferation of environmental organizations and activists) are issuing warnings about oil-related activity in the Arctic.

“A new white paper submitted to the government in early December 2018 warns against major risks related to the quickly aggravating climate change,” the Observer’s article notes. “The report ‘Climate risk and the Norwegian economy’ describes potential catastrophic consequences for society and economy should critical tipping points be crossed.”

As for stormy discussions among the commoners, the great-gale-that-wasn’t in Longyearbyen sparked plenty of caustic comments among locals debating whether we’ve gone soft. But those were tepid compared to posts from some reading articles about real tragedies such as the storm that killed six people in the Austrian and German Alps.

“If they’re busy snow blowing pathways in a cemetery can’t be all that bad. Oh and all of those poor skiers and tourists in Davos and elsewhere stuck in their luxury hotels! Horrors!” wrote one commenter responding to an article in The New York Times. Another opined “I’m sure this much snow causes all kinds of problems for the people who live and work there, but it’s oh so beautiful!”