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Changing weather has brought avalanches to Longyearbyen in Svalbard. But the small Arctic community is fighting the onslaught by relocating large parts of their town.
Isolated on the polar archipelago of Svalbard at 78 degrees north, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost permanent settlement (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Isolated on the polar archipelago of Svalbard at 78 degrees north, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost permanent settlement (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Northern exposure

Isolated on the polar archipelago of Svalbard at 78 degrees north, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost permanent settlement. Halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the 2,300 residents here are used to extremes. When the sun sets on 5 October each year, the town will not see it again for 155 days until 8 March the next year. For most of this time the town is covered in complete darkness.

Most travellers come to Longyearbyen, a mere 1,050km from the North Pole, during this time for a chance to see the Northern Lights, while the opportunity to spot the “King of the Arctic” – the polar bear – remains a top attraction year round.

Longyearbyen is under threat. Climate change has brought dramatic changes to Svalbard’s weather conditions over the past 10 years (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Longyearbyen is under threat. Climate change has brought dramatic changes to Svalbard’s weather conditions over the past 10 years (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

A changing world

But the town’s colourful houses that line the mountains’ lower slopes belie a darker secret: Longyearbyen is under threat. Climate change has brought dramatic changes to Svalbard’s weather conditions over the past 10 years. Along with increased summer and winter temperatures, the islands are receiving more rain; while in winter, unprecedented snowfall batters the mountains' slopes. Since 2014, these changing weather conditions have led to avalanches on the slopes above the town – something residents have not seen before.

Researchers have long predicted that temperature increases and changing weather conditions due to climate change would first occur in the Arctic and then spread south. This can already be seen in Svalbard, “as we are witnessing violent changes,” said climate scientist Ketil Isaksen of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. Since 1961, the rate of warming in Svalbard has been five times the global average. In March last year, Longyearbyen set a record of 100 consecutive months of above-normal temperatures. Today, the Guardian reports, it is the fastest-warming town in the world.

"our position in the world gives us challenges but also great opportunities,” said Arild Olsen, mayor of Longyearbyen (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

"our position in the world gives us challenges but also great opportunities,” said Arild Olsen, mayor of Longyearbyen (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

The 2,300 inhabitants here form a well-functioning family community… our position in the world gives us challenges but also great opportunities,” said Arild Olsen, mayor of Longyearbyen.

avalanche barrier at Longyearbyen, Svalbar, Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

avalanche barrier at Longyearbyen, Svalbar, Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Ground zero

During the dark winters, many Longyearbyen residents are afraid to stay in their homes, said Bente Næverdal, property manager at Statsbygg, the Norwegian State Building Agency, who lives in Longyearbyen.

They have good reason to be fearful. In December 2015, an avalanche killed two people and destroyed 11 houses at the base of Sukkertoppen (Sugar Top Mountain). In February 2017, another avalanche wiped away six more housing units.

Since 2018, the Norwegian government has invested around 500 million Norwegian kroner (more than £41 million) on new housing and protective measures such as avalanche barriers. With 60 new homes already built around 500m north-east of town in a safer area that’s not beneath a mountain slope, a second phase of the project will see the demolition of another 142 homes in what government officials describe as “hazardous areas”.

According to Næverdal, this will effectively be the largest house-building programme ever seen in this region, with large swathes of Longyearbyen needing to be rebuilt.

Rebuilding the world’s northernmost town
sailing ship in front of mountains Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

sailing ship in front of mountains Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

The Arctic is the thermometer of the Earth. It tells us how much environmental pollution and global warming the planet is able to tolerate,” said Svalbard Wildlife Services as posted in the Svalbard Museum.

Avalanche barriers Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Avalanche barriers Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Visual reminders

Almost none of the 30,000 tourists that travel to Longyearbyen annually will know that the town is under threat of unpredictable avalanches that threaten life and property, said Næverdal.

The first clue is the avalanche barriers erected on the mountainside above a section of homes. The highest barrier on the mountain is a massive upright galvanised steel structure, 10m high and 200m long, that’s designed to prevent snow from blowing from the east over the mountain’s edge towards the town. The second and third structures, located halfway down Sukkertoppen and above the town centre, are to prevent an avalanche from demolishing the houses.

The barriers, built in summer 2018, have brought some feeling of security, according to Næverdal. “I live directly under the barriers and I feel safe,” he said.

Unfortunately, the barriers cannot extend all the way up the valley because the slopes along Sukkertoppen become too steep, which means hundreds of residents who live below these upper reaches are forced to evacuate their homes each winter.

It is only when tourists ask about these strange-looking fortifications that they are told about the danger of avalanches, which is increasing year on year.

permafrost wooden piles house construction Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

permafrost wooden piles house construction Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

A touch of frost

As well as the increasing avalanche threat on the mountains, Longyearbyen residents are also facing a threat from below ground. Most of the buildings in Longyearbyen have traditionally been built on wooden piles driven 6m to 8m into the permafrost, according to professor Arne Aalberg, technology department leader at the University Centre in Svalbard.

Permafrost, the permanently frozen soil that is commonly found in Arctic regions, has been used for centuries to provide solid foundations for buildings. It was formed 100,000 years ago when ground temperatures in the Arctic regions fell to below freezing. Even during the summer months, when the ambient temperature climbs above zero degrees, the permafrost would always remain solid.

However, since 1971, temperature in Svalbard have risen by 4C, five times faster than the global average. In the winter, when the changes are more marked, it has increased by 7C, according to a February 2019 report by the Norwegian Environment Agency. Summer temperatures can now regularly reach the teens, which was unheard of a decade ago.

This means that the permafrost is slowly melting from ground level downwards, explained Aalberg, and this holds serious implications for residences as well as the future of construction in the area. Houses built on wooden piles will begin to sag and collapse.

“As long as the foundations remain in frozen soil, they are strong. But when permafrost heats up, it becomes a pile of mud,” Aalberg warned. Even if the lower layers of permafrost remain solid, when the upper layers melt, the wooden piles become rotten and unstable.

the mine trail Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

the mine trail Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Adapting to another climate is terribly expensive but we have no time to wait, we must not let insecurity continue,” said Olsen.

house construction using steel pilings into the permafrost Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

house construction using steel pilings into the permafrost Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

An expensive solution

Building in an environment where permafrost “cannot be trusted anymore” comes with huge challenges, explained Inger-Johanne Tollaas, an architect from Oslo who works as a project manager at Statsbygg. She has overseen the building of the first 60 new homes overlooking the ocean, away from the avalanche-threatened valley.

The project has had to eschew traditional building methods because the housing units needed to be placed on top of secure foundations, explained Tollaas. To achieve this, they used huge numbers of steel pilings, driving them beyond the permafrost into the mountain rock.

“We used almost a ridiculous amount of steel. We needed to drive the steel into the mountain. It was very hard work and very expensive. Yes, it looks really heavy, but we built for the future. These homes will be safe for 60 years,” she said.

Housing units Skanska Husfabrikken Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Housing units Skanska Husfabrikken Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Grand designs

There was only one way, Tollaas said, to beat the “almost impossible” timeframe of erecting 60 housing units in Arctic conditions in less than a year: build them as complete units on mainland Norway, ship them to Svalbard and crane them onto the secure steel foundations.

Prefabricated as modular units by the Skanska Husfabrikken (house factory) near Trondheim, this solution came with its own set of challenges. “We really battled to find a large enough ship,” said Tollaas. “And once we had a ship, it was almost impossible to know when it would arrive, so proper logistical planning was essential.

Then there was the wind and the darkness. “We were lucky with the wind. It somehow dissipated on the days we lowered the units onto the steelwork. Our margin for error was mere millimetres, but we managed.”

Traffic in Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Traffic in Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Building in Arctic conditions, especially during the winter, is tough. On windy days the windchill temperature dipped to -50C,” said Arne Gunhildberget, building project manager.

Flowers and native vegetation in front of new housing units, Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Flowers and native vegetation in front of new housing units, Longyearbyen Svalbard Norway (Credit: Werner Hoffmann)

Saving the flowers

One of the achievements Tollaas is most proud of is how the building team managed to conserve the vegetation they unearthed to build the new homes. It was important because some 68 species of grasses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and mosses that manage to survive on the Svalbard tundra do not grow on the Norwegian mainland.

“We carefully removed the upper part of the vegetation to store off-site. When the buildings were complete, we returned it to the areas around the new building complexes. We really took special care. Normally it takes hundreds of years for this upper vegetation to flower again, but we can see some green already and hopefully next year there will be some flowers too,” Tollaas said.

“I’m proud because we managed to give the families safe homes and conserve their environment.”

(Text by Piet van Niekerk; video and photos by Werner Hoffmann)

The World of Tomorrow is a BBC Travel series that visits ingenious communities around the world that are adapting to environmental change or who are finding new ways to live sustainably.