Another avalanche thundered down a mountainside in Norway’s northernmost archipelago of Svalvard during the weekend. It followed the first of several avalanches around Svalbard’s main island of Spitsbergen, which destroyed 10 homes, left one man dead and two children critically injured.
The latest avalanche, caused by shifting temperatures and hurricane-strength winds, crashed through a hytte (cabin) in Bjørndalen outside the main city of Longyearbyen. Local authorities and the Red Cross reported that the force of the snow literally ripped the cabin off its foundation, but no one was in the cabin at the time and there were no reports of missing persons.
Nearly 200 people remained under evacuation orders Sunday afternoon, after another 59 residents of Longyearbyen were told to leave their homes during the night. Avalanche experts from Norges Geotekniske Institutt were examining slopes all around the city, to evaluate the stability of the snow. Evacuees were being housed at various locations around Longyearbyen, while evacuated homes remained under guard. Residents were not allowed to return to their homes to collect personal belongings, not from the wreckage of those destroyed on Saturday either.
The remote Arctic community was still trying to recover on Sunday, first from the powerful storm that slammed into Svalbard late last week and then an avalanche that roared down the slopes of the mountain called Sukkertoppen and destroyed 10 homes located next to each other at its foot. The homes had stood there for as long as 30 years, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), but some geologists said they would likely never have been built today given the avalanche danger that has grown in line with milder winters and climate change.
A total of 10 occupants, four children and six adults, were trapped inside the homes, many of them buried under mounds of snow and badly injured. Other local residents spontaneously mounted a massive search and rescue effort in addition to the official emergency response, grabbing shovels and furiously digging through the snow to search for victims. One woman wearing only pajamas and a robe was rescued after being caught under mounds of snow that crashed into her kitchen.
One man, indentified on Sunday as 42-year-old Atle Husby, was killed by the avalanche. The injured were rushed to the local hospital on Svalbard, with three of the children and one man later flown on to the University Hospital of Northern Norway in Tromsø because of the extent of their injuries. The condition of one of the children remained critical on Sunday afternoon, while the others were listed as stable.
The local authority, Sysselmannnen på Svalbard, also reported on Sunday that an extra flight was being set up from Longyearbyen to Oslo via Tromsø Sunday evening, for anyone wishing to leave Svalbard. Evacuees would not, however, be allowed to re-enter their homes to collect baggage before leaving. Up to 100 one-way tickets were being offered free of charge for those wanting to spend the holidays on the mainland. Return tickets would be at their own expense.
Search goes on
Meanwhile, a search with specially trained dogs flown in from Tromsø on Saturday was continuing for any other possible victims buried under the snow. Since there were no reports of missing persons, though, Sysselmann Kjerstin Askholt (who functions as a sheriff on Svalbard) said that they didn’t expect the death toll to rise.
“This is a tough time for Longyearbyen,” Askholt said. “Many residents are strongly affected by this accident, and some have lost one of their family members.”
At the same time, Askholt hailed the “formidable contribution” made by “the entire local community. Without that help of many volunteers, this accident could have been much worse.”
King Harald V sent his condolences on Sunday: “My thoughts are at this time with everyone who has been affected. I want to thank the emergency crews and volunteers for the great and important contribution you have made, and are still making, in Longyearbyen. My family and I send our warmest thoughts to you who have lost a loved one, you who have been injured, you who are still living with uncertainty and you who have had your homes destroyed.”