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Shaken and stirred up

Longyearbyen residents want to know why an avalanche-prone area was not put on alert ahead of destructive slide
Right place, unexpected time (Photo: Mark Sabbatini/icepeople)

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No-one was hurt, but residents of residents of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, have still been left asking what went wrong, after two apartment buildings were severely damaged (pictured above) Tuesday morning when an avalanche ripped through a neighbourhood that officials earlier in the day had said was in no immediate danger.

The buildings were in the same neighbourhood where a December 19, 2015 avalanche claimed two lives and demolished a dozen homes.

A number of residents were in both buildings at the time of today’s avalanche, which was powerful enough to move cars, began shortly before noon. Officials say all residents are accounted for, and that none were seriously injured, but many occupants of the damaged buildings later said they narrowly escaped. Some recalled having to jump out of windows.

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Nils Lorentsen, a resident of one of the two buildings, told Svalbardposten, a local news outlet, that he and his partner, Ingeborg Snekvik, were in a hallway preparing to leave when the avalanche hit. They heard cries when Ms Snekvik shouted into the neighbouring flat.

“We went in there and promptly lifted up the two children in our hands,” Mr Lorentsen said. “The grandmother could not get out from the place she was at the time and we were asked to get the kids.”

The children were placed in a vehicle and covered with blankets and until their grandmother could be reunited with them.

Scores of people with shovels responded within minutes, but most were asked to move from the immediate area for safety reasons. Marie Brekkhus, who said she has avalanche rescue experience, said those in charge at the scene told her additional help wasn’t needed.

“They were just probing to make sure,” she said.

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A report about the 2015 incident, released by NVE, the national water and power authority, late last year, found that more than 150 residences in Longyearbyen to be in immediate danger in the event of an avalanche, including many of those evacuated Tuesday, brought on by a 100-year storm.

Today’s avalanche came after a ‘Level Four’ warning, the second-highest possible, was declared for Svalbard early on Tuesday due to heavy snow and high winds during the past day. City officials had urged people not to travel in at-risk areas, but said there appeared to be no danger to buildings.

Per Sanderud, a spokesperson for NVE, which assesses avalanche risks for the sysselmann, the territory’s governor, has since told the media that not concluding the residential area was in danger was “an error”. Classifying the danger as Level Four meant there was a high risk of an avalanche, but NVE did not believe there was enough snow on the ground to put the buildings at risk.  

Arild Olsen, Longyearbyen’s mayor, explained that the same evaluation procedures were used as during several other major storms that have resulted in three evacuations in at-risk areas since the 2015 avalanche due to risk of snowslides and landslides.

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Mr Olsen explained that the decision not to evacuate buildings in the area was based on an assessment of the snowpack Monday night and on Tuesday by NVE avalanche experts.

“You can’t guarantee (forecasts) totally,” he said. “I think we learned that in a most brutal way.”

A most brutal way. But, fortunately, not the most brutal way. 

This article is published in collaboration with icepeoplea local news outlet on Svalbard. For further updates on the situation visit Official information is available at