Look to Longyearbyen for climate adaptation

After the avalanches in 2015 and 2017, avalanche fences were built on Sukkertoppen. Photo: Maria Philippa Rossi/UNIS

Top image: After the avalanches in 2015 and 2017, avalanche fences were built on Sukkertoppen. Photo: Maria Philippa Rossi/UNIS

Climate risk management in Longyearbyen will be an important basis for future climate adaptation in mainland Norway.

21 March 2022
Text: Eirik Albrechtsen, Professor, NTNU and Arctic Safety Centre, UNIS, Martin Indreiten, General manager, Arctic Safety Centre, UNIS, Siiri Wickström, Post doc, Arctic Safety Centre, UNIS

The new report from the UN Climate Panel shows, as previous reports, that there is a “code red for the planet” and addresses the consequences of climate change for nature, people and society. Based on the report, the Minister of Climate and Environment, Mr. Espen Barth Eide, said that climate adaptation must take place immediately. A few days later, Office of the Auditor General of Norway issued a report showing that the Norwegian authorities have not implemented the necessary climate adaptation measures nor have made a sufficient survey of the impact of climate change on natural hazards.

In Longyearbyen, climate change is well felt, and work on climate adaptation has been underway for several years. Just before Christmas in 2015, there was an avalanche from a mountainside above town. The snow masses thundered into eleven houses and took two lives. An avalanche warning system was then urgently established, and plans were made for permanent safety measures. The importance of this work was reinforced by a new snow avalanche in 2017 which again hit buildings and led to major destruction, but with no casualties. Both avalanches can be explained by changes in the climate because in the days leading up to the avalanches, weather conditions were different from what has been usual for the season. Avalanches in and around Longyearbyen are not a new phenomenon, but because temperature, wind and precipitation are different than before, we see that new places are exposed to avalanches due to these changes.

Experiencing climate change

Longyearbyen experiences climate change today as warmer temperatures and a larger proportion of precipitation that falls as rain instead of snow. This is largely due to the rapidly declining winter sea ice north and east of Svalbard. The sea areas east of Svalbard top the global warming statistics with a warming wintertime of as much as 10.6⁰C in the period 1971-2019. In comparison, global temperatures have risen below 1⁰C in the same period. These climate changes are shown in Svalbard as, among other things, warmer permafrost, increased melting of glaciers, shorter cold periods, and more rain-on-snow events during the winter season. In addition, climate extremes are experienced.

The summer of 2020 was the warmest ever in Svalbard. The heat wave led to an abnormally large melting of glaciers. This led to increased water penetration and flooding of Mine 7, Norway’s last coal mine. The latter is an example of how climate change has consequences for societal functions and infrastructure. Measures to prevent and reduce damage because of climate change have already been implemented in Longyearbyen.

Here we can distinguish between:

1) permanent climate adaptation measures that are to reduce the probability and consequences of incidents and

2) climate preparedness that is about monitoring, warning and quick response when needed.

Triggered a local warning system

The mentioned avalanches in 2015 and 2017 immediately led to a local avalanche warning system where daily avalanche warnings are prepared with data from, among other things, snow sensors and observations from a local observer corp. The notification system shall be replaced by permanent measures that are or will be established. On the mountainside above the buildings, physical safety measures have been established to prevent the build-up of snow and prevent avalanches from damaging infrastructure. In the autumn of 2021, an approximately 400 meters long and approximately 5.5-meter-high avalanche embankment between the city and the mountainside was completed.

Longyearbyen has also shown great adaptability to the changes in the risk picture. 10 percent of the buildings have been moved to avoid avalanche zones. When the authorities now call for rapid implementation of climate adaptation measures, local avalanche warning systems based on sensor technology and local observers, already established in Longyearbyen, will be effective in the short term.

In the longer term, permanent measures will be more robust, but then there must be risk surveys that consider future changes in climate with associated uncertainty. Other climate adaptation measures in Longyearbyen are monitoring of the permafrost layer, which when thawed in combination with precipitation increases the probability of landslides. In recent years, work has also been carried out to flood-proof the Longyear River. With higher temperatures and melting, the water flow increases and thus the chance of flooding.

Planning for the future

In the years to come, Longyearbyen will move towards shorter snow seasons. Towards the end of the century, dry avalanches will probably not be a problem for Longyearbyen anymore. But the warmer and wetter climate will lead to more slush- and landslides as well as floods. The risk picture is changing, and measures for climate adaptation must be in accordance with the changes.

Researchers from UNIS, NTNU, SINTEF, University of Stavanger and NTNU Social Research have been working on the ARCT-RISK research project for almost a year. In this project, Longyearbyen functions as a “living laboratory” for studying and developing approaches and methods for assessing and managing climate risk. The interdisciplinary research group works closely with representatives from local actors in Longyearbyen. The Longyearbyen Local Council, the Governor of Svalbard, Telenor Svalbard, Skred AS and NVE region North participate in a local user group together with Nordkapp municipality, which faces similar avalanche challenges as Longyearbyen, and which contributes to results being relevant for mainland municipalities.

Knowledge of successful methods and approaches for managing climate risk in Longyearbyen will be an important basis for future climate adaptation in mainland Norway and other relevant parts of the world.


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