The top local administrator on Norway’s Arctic island group of Svalbard began ordering evacuations on Wednesday, as a major storm moved in that threatened to set off avalanches. The order came after advice from the state agency charged with monitoring avalanche danger, NVE.
Svalbard’s top official Kjerstin Askholt, known as sysselmannen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the first residents to be evacuated live in the small community of Nybyen on the main island of Spitsbergen. Most of the buildings there, all located along the base of a mountain slope, consist of dormitories for students and guest houses that are rented out to visitors.
The university on Svalbard reported that most all the students are away on holidays at present. Tourists staying in the guest houses have been evacuated to a hotel in Longyearbyen.
“We’re working to inform those who must leave the area,” the leader of the local council on Svalbard, Arild Olsen, told NRK. “We’re making sure they get the information they need.”
The first evacuation order covers 58 people but more may be told to leave their homes as well as the storm develops. The state meteorological institute has sent out warnings for the entire island of Spitsbergen, based on forecasts of wind gusts approaching hurricane force along with blizzard conditions.
As first warned on Tuesday, the winds are the biggest problem because they can send snow crashing down the mountainsides that are treeless and have little if any obstacles to halt the mounds of snow. In addition to the area around Svalbard’s population center at Longyearbyen, the avalanche warnings apply to the eastern, western and southern portions of the island group.
“We will have a new meeting with NVE later this afternoon, and make new decisions based on the information we get,” Askholt told NRK. “We are urging folks in the strongest of terms not to set off into the terrain, either on foot, on skis or on snowmobiles.”
The storm and avalanche warnings have “opened new sores” on Svalbard, local pastor Leif Magne Helgesen, told NRK, after the community recently marked the first anniversary of an avalanche last year. It destroyed several homes and killed two people caught indoors, just before the Christmas holidays.
“This is the third evacuation in a year, but it’s good the officials aren’t taking any chances,” Helgesen said. “It’s better that we evacuate too much than too little.”
Svalbard, with a total population of less than 3,000, is also known as a tight-knit community where “everyone knows everyone and everyone helps everyone,” as officials have said earlier. Now they’re bracing for a massive low-pressure system moving in from the North Atlantic.