Photo: The Frozen Five.
18 March 2020
Text: Martin Indreiten, Acting Operating Manager, Arctic Safety Centre (UNIS) and Bjørn Ivar Kruke, Adjunct Associate Professor, Arctic Safety Centre (UNIS) and The University of Stavanger.
On Sunday, March 15, the main rescue center in southern Norway issued a clear request to cancel mountain trips ‘topptur’ in steep terrain: “The Norwegian emergency preparedness system is being put to the test these days. This also applies to all rescue resources. The most important thing now is to follow the advice and recommendations given to reduce the spread of infection and keep the most vulnerable groups safe. Take care of each other, postpone the mountain trip and participate in the duty”.
These are good tips that are important to keep in mind here in Svalbard. Many of the outdoor activities in Svalbard are what we can call ‘risk-based leisure activities’. These include skiing trips, glacier trips, snowmobile tours, driving on sea ice, etc. These are leisure activities where we are exposed to an increased risk; leisure activities where the consequences of accidents can be great.
At the time of writing, the corona virus has not yet been detected in Svalbard. However, it can be expected that we will also get the virus in Longyearbyen. If we enter a phase of many infected people in Svalbard in the coming weeks, many of our emergency resources will be needed to deal with this. We see the same picture on the mainland, where the health service and other emergency organizations are preparing to deal with the pandemic. At such a time, it can be particularly critical if emergency personnel and resources are all occupied, due to rescue operations related to leisure activities. The government has said that they will, if necessary, introduce a new regulation that prohibits people from staying in their own cabins in other municipalities than where they live. This is because we have limited health resources around the municipalities. The same is of course the case in Longyearbyen. When the corona pandemic is upon us, treatment and follow-up of any injuries caused by leisure activities will unnecessarily burden the limited resources at Longyearbyen Hospital. It will also be difficult to carry out rescue operations, and at the same time take care of infection preparedness and control. Personnel participating must be close, and the rescue and first aid practice involves close contact between rescue personnel and those in need of assistance. By the current rules, it most likely means the quarantine of those involved from the rescue service. Since we are few people living in Longyearbyen, there are several of the inhabitants here who have dual roles that are related to health, safety and preparedness. This makes both emergency preparedness and staffing of socially critical functions extra vulnerable.
In such a situation, it would be irresponsible to embark on long trips involving risk-based leisure activities, where you are exposed to unnecessary danger. The most ambitious backcountry trips should be put on hold. This is one of the reasons why the University Center at Svalbard (UNIS) has canceled all field activities in addition to teaching digitally for the remainder of the spring semester. Fieldwork in Svalbard always presents an opportunity for undesirable events to occur, since you are traveling in a challenging nature and must deal with a dynamic risk picture with rapid changes in weather and conditions. By cancelling field activities, UNIS avoids burdening the local health care system with injuries at a time when health resources must be prepared and ready for action.
We are at the beginning of peak season in terms of trip activity and many may have planned longer trips around the island. For anyone with trip experience from Svalbard, you know that the weather and driving conditions change quickly. Conditions can also be local and vary within a small area. What should have been a simple trip in familiar terrain can quickly turn into a demanding trip where the consequence of making the wrong choice can be fatal. Proven consequence thinking [what can happen and what can be the consequence] is a good approach to go on trips safely. This can be demanding and requires a high level of competence of the individual.
A more effective way to minimize risk is to think about exposure time and vulnerability. Postpone the long and ambitious trips and take into account the cold winter with minimal snow cover and conditions that many have not experienced before. Consider dropping the most ambitious ski trips. With little snow, it is natural to draw the conclusion that the avalanche danger is low. But locally, larger amounts of snow may have accumulated in some slopes and valley sides. This places great demands on those who are making good and qualified assessments of the local conditions. Minimal snow on the glaciers means that snow bridges are thinner and have poorer carrying capacity, making the journey more challenging. Little snow in the terrain in general means that a normal accident such as overturning with a snowmobile can have serious consequences by hitting a rock or ground without a cushioning snow cover. The cold winter has finally brought us sea ice, which opens up the possibility of fjord crossings and long trips. It is therefore conceivable that several are planning a long trip into areas that have had little traffic in recent winters. The experience-based knowledge of the conditions in these areas can therefore be inadequate and places extra demands on good skills for those who go on such a trip. Should the accident occur, rescue and assistance will take time due to the distances and unpredictable local conditions. A serious accident in Svalbard can also affect health resources on the mainland by seizing specialist teams and air ambulances. Another outcome may also be that one can only support one event in Svalbard with few or reduced resources because of increased demands for the resources on the mainland.
The call must therefore be: Now that the corona pandemic is upon us, we must all avoid burdening the local rescue service and the hospital with unnecessary accidents. There are many great hiking and trip opportunities in the areas around Longyearbyen. Take easy and safe trips in the immediate area and do not expose yourself to unnecessary risk. Think through your choices and join the community duty. In the end, your choices can affect an entire community.