SHORT-TERM GAIN, LONG-TERM PAIN: A dozen evacuated ‘red zone’ homes can again be occupied until winter, but dozens more may join demolition list due to avalanche exposure


Good news: a dozen apartments can now be occupied during the next several months just in time for the many employees arriving for the start of summer cruise ship season next week. Bad news: the list of about 140 residences scheduled for demolition beginning as soon as this month due to their avalanche exposure may add another 41 units because previous hopes of protecting them may be unfeasible.

The 12 addresses vacated since last Nov. 29 are part of a large number of “red zone” residences that during the past few years have been deemed unsafe to occupy due to their exposure to avalanches. Similar evacuation orders occurred during the previous two winters – not including numerous short-term evacuations ordered for those and numerous other residences due to major storms – and following a similar pattern The Governor of Svalbard announced Thursday the current order is being lifted as long as there is insufficient snow on the mountain above to pose a threat.

“The governor, for the sake of clarity, makes it clear that if there are weather situations that indicate increased avalanche risk, evacuation situations could again occur” the governor’s statement notes. “The governor will once again set a permanent residence ban when avalanche risk occurs in the coming winter.”

The affected addresses are Vei 222-7, 222-9, 222-11, 222-13, 222-15, 222-17, Vei 226-10, 226-12, 226-31, 226-33, 226-35 and 226-37.

But while that provides some short-term relief for a housing situation so overcrowded people with jobs have been forced to leave Longyearbyen anyhow due to the lack of a place to live, it does little to relive a far more severe long-term problem that may have just gotten significantly worse.

A total of 139 residences in the same neighborhood near the center of town are scheduled for demolition beginning this spring because an assessment during the past year concluded they cannot be adequately protected by snow barriers and/or other avalanche protection measures. Svalbardposten reported Thursday another 41 residences on Vei 228, 15 of which are privately owned, may now be added to the list because a major climate report released earlier this year indicates the terrain on the mountainside above may be too unstable to ensure protective measures can be securely established.

“There seems to be a problem in the top soil and rock layers on Sukkertoppen,” Øyvind Hellum, the city’s avalanche security manager, told the newspaper. “That makes it difficult to properly base the planned support extensions.”

Consultants hired by Store Norske, which owns most of the property in question, concluded the slope porous rock with lots of ice that permeates up to 10 meters beneath the surface, according to Svalbardposten. That means the planned support extensions up to 14 meters deep being used in other installations, work on which began last year, may be inadequate.

The crisis began after avalanches in late 2015 and early 2017 destroyed about 20 residences and killed two people. Studies after the second avalanche concluded that previous data used to forecast risk were outdated due to climate change and that far more homes than expected were exposed to avalanches and landslides. The Norwegian government has approved hundreds of millions of kroner to quickly build new housing in safe areas in addition to the protective installations on Sukkertoppen.