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Svalbard residents evacuated ahead of 'extreme' storm

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Svalbard residents evacuated ahead of 'extreme' storm
24 households were evacuated on Monday with the possibility of more on Tuesday. Photo: Berit Roald / Scanpix
16:42 CET+01:00
Residents in parts of Longyearbyen were evacuated on Monday and several roads were closed ahead of predicted heavy rains in the Svalbard archipelago in the heart of the Norwegian Arctic.
“This is a type of extreme weather we are not accustomed to in Svalbard, and we are therefore uncertain how this will turn out in Longyearbyen. In collaboration with avalanche experts from NVE [the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, ed.] we have therefore decided to evacuate residents in flood and landslide prone areas in Longyearbyen. A number of roads will also be closed,” Svalbard District Governor Kjerstin Askholt said. 
 
Evacuations began at around 3pm on Monday and a traffic ban was introduced in the evacuated areas. 
 
“We ask people not to move about in the terrain. Loose objects should be secured,” said Askholt.
 
The Longyearbyen local council, together with the University Centre in Svalbard and NVE, considered whether other residential areas in Longyearbyen should be evacuated but ultimately decided that it would not be necessary.
 
Local Chairman Arild Olsen told Svalbard Posten that the council considers the evacuations to be short-term and stressed that it is not an an acute and dangerous situation. But the board must make precautions due to the heavy precipitation that is predicted, he said. 
 
The Meteorological Institute of Spitsbergen warned that  30 to 50 millimetres of rain could fall in a 24-hour period around Longyearbyen. Some spots could receive over 100mm. The rain will bring a risk of flooding and landslides. 
 
NVE's avalanche department issued a Level Four warning, its highest, for areas over 700 metres above sea level on Svalbard. 
 
Initially, a total of 24 homes from Road 222 to 228 were evacuated in Longyearbyen, the archipelago's remote capital where coal mining families and polar bears live side by side. In addition, all of Nybyen has been evacuated.
 
It will be assessed whether other areas in Longyearbyen need to be evacuated and several additional roads are likely to be closed. 
 
A reconsideration of the evacuation situation will be undertaken on Tuesday morning.
 
“We will follow the situation and developments on an ongoing basis,” Askholt said. 
 
On December 19th of last year two people were killed and eleven houses were destroyed by an avalanche in the foothills of Mount Sukkertoppen overlooking Longyearbyen. 
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