Avalanche danger threatens parts of Longyearbyen | Polarjournal
Nybyen, located south (bottom of picture) of Longyearbyen, was established in 1946-47 to accommodate increased coal production and additional personnel. Since then, around 100 Longyearbyen residents have been living and working there. Image: Christian Bruttel

Longyearbyen, the capital and administrative centre of Svalbard, is situated in a basin of the Adventfjord. In 1906 the US-American John Munro Longyear discovered and exploited rich coal seams on its slopes. In the process, the town of Longyearbyen was formed, which in the course of time grew further and further back towards the glacier, thus forming the district of Nybyen (New Town). However, the steep slopes that frame the village are now increasingly becoming an avalanche hazard.

Just how imminent the avalanche danger really is at the moment was demonstrated yesterday, Sunday, when a large avalanche descended from the eastern flank of the valley basin in the direction of Nybyen and came to a halt shortly before the first houses. According to Sysselmannen, no people were affected and no damage to infrastructure was reported. But the warning from the authorities is quite clear: No traffic in the back area of Longyearbyen until today Monday. Then a reassessment of the situation will take place. Also the area below Sukkertoppen, the mountain towards Adventfjord and Longyearbyen, is currently closed due to avalanche danger.

Since a few days the weather around Longyearyben was a bit crazy. Strong winds of more than 50 km/h, temperatures between 0 and -10°C and corresponding snow storms had led to “challenging weather conditions”, as reported by the Sysselmannen and the media in Longyearbyen. After a snowmobile group reported an avalanche southwest of Longyearbyen on Friday and weather conditions remained volatile, authorities ordered the evacuation of parts of Nybyen and some buildings located at the foot of Sukkertoppen in the front area of Longyearbyen last Friday. They also ordered a complete traffic ban for the areas. As Svalbardposten reports, 56 people were evacuated. These will not be able to return to Nybyen until further notice. Sysselmen had stated they would conduct another assessment of the situation today, Monday, and then decide how to proceed.

The front part of Longyearbyen, lies partly at the foot of Sukkertoppen, one of the mountains of Longyeardalen. The 424 metre high mountain is Longyearbyen’s local mountain. But avalanches from its western flank had twice hit the village and also claimed lives. Picture: Michael Wenger

Avalanches have been recorded in the mountains of Svalbard time and again, mostly without consequences for people and infrastructure. But in February 2020, an avalanche south of Barentsburg had claimed two lives. And in recent years Longyearbyen has been hit several times by avalanches on the eastern slopes of the mountain range. In December 2015, an avalanche claimed two lives, including a child, when the masses of snow buried homes. And in February 2017, more avalanches from the same mountain caused severe property damage in Longyearbyen. Subsequent investigations, also by the Norwegian Geological Institute, led to the decision to erect avalanche barriers on the most vulnerable parts of the eastern side of the Longyeardalen. But these have not yet been built. Svalbard is one of the regions in the Arctic that has been severely affected by climate change. Over the past 50 years, the average temperature has risen by 4°C, and by as much as 7°C in winter. This has also increased precipitation and extreme weather events. This also increased the risk of avalanches around Longyearbyen, writes the Norwegian Centre for Climate Service in a study published in 2019. Several large avalanches have been recorded in the valleys around Longyearbyen in recent days.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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