An evacuation of the mountainside buildings in Nybyen for a third straight weekend – and one whose length will be measured in weeks – has been ordered as of 6 p.m. Friday due to large cornices overhanging the mountains (click link for video) due to heavy snow accumulation in recent weeks, The Governor of Svalbard announced at midday Friday.
The evacuation order, which affects 117 people mostly in student dorms and tourist lodging such as Gjestehuset 102, is until further notice.
“We will make weekly assessments of the situation, and the evacuation and the traffic and residence ban, but we emphasize that it is very uncertain when this can be lifted,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement. “Consideration for life and health always comes first.”
The evacuation also has longer-term implications for the area since for many years it has been classified as a high-risk area and private entities, not the city, are responsible for the safety of the occupants.
The cornices are up to seven meters high, and recent storms that have also often brought strong winds have resulted in snowpack that is unstable on many surfaces. Another storm with significant snow and strong winds is forecast from Friday evening through Sunday morning, which Askholt said is a factor in the evacuation order.
An SMS alert about the evacuation was sent at 12:24 p.m. to everyone within mobile range of of Longyearbyen, giving those affected several hours for what may be a “move out” situation in some cases. A ban on traffic along the mountainside snow trail will also be in effect.
“There is great uncertainty associated with when and if the cornices can loosen and fall down,” Askholt said. “This depends, among other things, on temperature, sun and snow conditions. The consequences can be great if they reach the buildings.”
A Level Four avalanche risk level (“high”) – one below the maximum – is forecast at least through Saturday for those mountains and most of the rest of the terrain within day-trip range of Longyearbyen, including Barentburg and the east coast, according to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. Numerous avalanches throughout the region have been reported, including two sizeable snow slides in Nybyen, although so far none have destroyed structures or trapped people.
Previous long-term evacuations of areas due to avalanche risk occurred in the Lia neighborhood during the winter/spring of 2017 and 2018 after two major avalanches there destroyed residents and killed two people. The orders remained effect until all significant snow accumulation was gone – meaning May or June – and subsequently the decision was made to permanently vacate and demolish roughly 140 residences in the area because they were considerable uninhabitable due to being far more at-risk than long believed.
However, the area of Nybyen being evacuated isn’t in the city’s avalanche protection plan, which at present includes building snow barriers for the buildings still occupied in Lia. That means “it is up to private actors to find solutions that make it possible to use the buildings during the avalanche season,” Morten Dyrstad, the city’s technical manager, told Svalbardposten after Friday’s evacuation order was issued.
“The avalanche protection plan stipulates that the public sector shall ensure avalanche protection of the city center and the residential areas,” he said. “Nybyen is not such an area and therefore the city government will not be involved in paying for avalanche protection there.”
Most of structures in the evacuated area were used as barracks for miners and other workers beginning when Mine 2B – above the buildings and part of the current danger zone – began operations many decades ago. Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik, a Longyearbyen resident for nearly 50 years ago who worked as a server and other service jobs for Store Norske, noted in a Facebook comment Friday afternoon that the danger – and private responsibility for it – is “old news for people who have been here for a while.”
The difference from ‘then’ and now is that in earlier times – when perhaps the largest part of the city’s population lived in Nybyen – Store Norske made sure that the cornices were blown down before they could do any damage,” she wrote. “Remains of the ‘dynamite hut’ may still be seen on the mountain.”