Bulldozers rumbled onto the sites of abandoned housing in Norway’s Arctic city of Longyearbyen on Svalbard over the weekend. The homes were badly damaged in the latest avalanches to hit Longyearbyen last winter, adding to a housing shortage that some call a “crisis” in the booming outpost.
“We have torn down six flats so far,” Frank Robert Jakobsen of contracting firm LNS Spitsbergen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday. The building was hit by snow and ice that crashed down the nearby mountainside known as Sukkertoppen in February.
The avalanche hit close to where an earlier avalanche struck homes that left two people dead and others buried in December 2015. No one was injured, though, in the buildings hit in the February avalanche on Road 228.
There have also been many avalanche threats and evacuations, with both homes and holiday cabins now deemed to be in danger zones. That’s set off uncertainty and uprooting for residents of the community that numbers only 2,000 and has long been under the control of the state and its now-wholly owned coal company, Store Norske. There aren’t many housing options available.
Others living in housing complexes near the foot of mountains were also shaken by the avalanches that destroyed structures, and wonder about the safety of their homes. Around 60 residences were evacuated after the February avalanche, and that’s a lot in a small community. NRK reported that a report issued last December showed that 34 buildings in Longyearbyen are vulnerable to new avalanches.
The government thus stepped in with NOK 48 million (USD 5.7 million) in the revised state budget last month, to help secure avalanche zones with barriers, do some groundwork and lay plans for new housing in Longyearbyen. It’s needed in a place that’s been seeing a boom in tourism, a thriving research community, growing international interest in Svalbard and the jobs that can create to help replace those lost when local coal mines have shut down. The University of Svalbard also is growing, fueling a demand for student housing.
Local media including the alternative newspaper Icepeople have written that the state funding is inadequate, but it will at least allow local officials and planners to start work before next winter arrives, hence the noisy clearing of the wreckage that began over the weekend. Open, flat land at Elvesletta and along the fjord at Sjøområdet are areas under consideration for new housing, and some is already under construction.
There’s been some posturing for position, though, with Svalbardposten reporting that Store Norske was geared and ready to lay out projects in the Gruvdalen area that instead were taken over by the state. Store Norske’s role is in flux in Longyearbyen, as the company seeks new ventures after 100 years of coal mining. Its role is expected to be better defined when its government owners lay out a new strategy for the company, due this autumn.