In the Arctic, severe weather reaction to the mining town – 06/23/2022 at 16:57


Tor Selnes, a 2015 avalanche survivor, at the new avalanche wall at Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, northern Norway, May 9, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

His life, he owes it to the lamp: Tor Selnes is an avalanche miracle that tragically highlighted the vulnerability of Svalbard to climate change, in the world’s warming Arctic region.

This Saturday, December 19, 2015, less than a week before Christmas, the 54-year-old teaching assistant was napping at his home in Longyearbyen, the capital of this Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the Arctic.

Suddenly snow masses fell on the side of the Sukkertoppen mountain overlooking the city, sweeping away two rows of houses.

Tor Selnes’ room was moved 80 meters and the room he was sleeping in was completely shattered.

To avoid getting caught in the snow, he holds a lamp from the ceiling for a few seconds.

“It was like I was in a washing machine, surrounded by plates, glass, sharp objects, everything you can imagine,” he says.

He survived cuts and bruises. In another wing of the house, her three children were unharmed.

But two neighbours, Atle, with whom he played poker the day before, and Nicolin, a two-year-old girl, died there.

Tor Selnes displays a photo of the lamp that saved his life during an avalanche on December 19, 2015, in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway.  (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

Tor Selnes displays a photo of the lamp that saved his life during an avalanche on December 19, 2015, in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

Tragedy, hitherto considered unthinkable, had the effect of an electric shock on this community of less than 2,500 inhabitants.

“There has been a lot of talk about climate change since my arrival (…) but it has been hard to see or absorb,” says author and journalist Line Nagell Ylvisåker, who has been based in Longyearbyen since 2005.

“When you live here, it’s like watching a child grow up: you don’t see the glaciers retreating” day in and day out, she says.

– past mining –

In Svalbard, climate change means shorter winters, lower temperatures, stronger and more intense rainfall and melting permafrost.

The Longyearbyen avalanche barrier, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

The Longyearbyen avalanche barrier, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

There are many conditions that lead to avalanches and landslides…

In the days following the tragedy, rains, contrasting in the Christmas period, fell on the city.

Then came record rain the following fall, and another avalanche swept through another house, causing no casualties, in 2017.

“Previously, we’ve talked a lot about polar bears, new species, and what’s going to happen in nature,” continues Line Nagell Ylvisåker.

Maps showing the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and locating the regions of Barentsberg, Longyearbyen and Ny Alesund (AFP/)

Maps showing the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and locating the regions of Barentsberg, Longyearbyen and Ny Alesund (AFP/)

“A polar bear perched on a piece of ice symbolizes that, but (meteorological incident series, editor’s note) it made me open my eyes to how it affects us humans too,” she adds.

After the avalanche, authorities condemned 144 dwellings deemed endangered. This represents about 10% of the building stock in the city, which has now been replaced by a massive anti-avalanche barrier made of large blocks of granite.

A harsh reaction to Longyearbyen, whose history is closely related to fossil fuels.

A playful mix of colorful wooden houses, the town was founded in 1906 by American businessman John Monroe Longyear, who came to mine coal there.

The Longyearbyen avalanche barrier, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

The Longyearbyen avalanche barrier, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

If nearly all the mines are closed today—the last should be, usually, next year—there is a huge miner’s truck shed on the city heights, a testament to the mining past.

Coal (almost) stored in the museum, is the climate change that is now shaping the urban landscape.

– Hotspot –

According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on Earth with the highest temperature rise”.

In the northern part of the Barents Sea that inundates the archipelago, warming is seven times faster than on the planet, according to a study he co-signed in the journal Nature.

A sign warning of the presence of polar bears on the side of a road near Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, May 2, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan Nakstrand)

A sign warning of the presence of polar bears on the side of a road near Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, May 2, 2022 (AFP/Jonathan Nakstrand)

Blame receding sea ice, which scientists say usually acts as an insulating blanket that keeps the ocean from warming the atmosphere in winter and protects the ocean from the sun’s rays in summer.

In Longyearbyen, thawing permafrost weakens the soil, makes light poles flash and the foundations of homes need to be redone. Until then unnecessary to this cold and dry climate, gutters appear on the roofs…

At the edge of town, it hasn’t seen any real ice on its surface since 2004, called Isfjorden (“Ice Fjord”), which you could once cross by snowmobile in winter.

Even the world famous seed sanctuary, which was supposed to protect plant biodiversity from the shortcomings of men and natural disasters, had to undergo major work after water unexpectedly leaked into the tunnel controlling its entry into the bowels of the mountain.

In the offices of the newspaper Svalbardposten, editor-in-chief Bor Hoogle sums up the situation in shock form. Climate change? Today, “we don’t discuss it, we see it.”

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