Another avalanche rams Longyearbyen

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UPDATED: NVE, the state agency responsible for issuing avalanche warnings, admitted it made a mistake Tuesday after more tons of snow, ice, dirt and rocks thundered down on a residental area of Longyearbyen on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard on Tuesday. Agency personnel had posted high avalanche danger in other areas but hadn’t expected another one in town, and much like the one that killed two people just over a year ago.

Tuesday’s avalanche began once again on the side of the mountain known as Sukkertoppen, and crashed into at least one building. Witnesses claimed they saw people jumping out of windows in a building that contained apartments, but local authorities could confirm later in the day that no one had been reported missing or injured after the avalanche.

A similar avalanche occurred in almost the same spot just before Christmas of 2015, killing two occupants of a home. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the new avalanche site is only a few hundred meters away.

Nearly 200 residents of the area have since been evacuated to a local community hall, while emergency crews continued to patrol the area. By late afternoon they were certain that no lives had been lost nor was anyone injured.

There was great damage, however, and several homes were destroyed. A total of 75 households were affected  by the evacuation order.

Warnings had been posted of high avalanche danger on Svalbard this week, also on Tuesday. The danger level was set at 4, the next-highest level on the scale used by authorities.

Local residents and visitors on Svalbard had been warned to stay away from steep mountainsides after a winter of wild weather with rapidly changing temperatures, lots of wind and even uncharacteristic rain.

The weather in the area on Tuesday was described as “bad,” with stong winds and poor visibility. While avalanche warnings were posted, local authorities hadn’t expected there would be any danger where there were buildings. They admitted to NRK that they made a mistake and were prepared to accept criticism.

Many people were upset and authorities said they could understand. NVE has “established a warning system that’s supposed to be one of the country’s best,” Arild Olsen of the local town council told NRK. “But there’s clearly a risk in the system, and that was demonstrated in a brutal manner today.” Berglund