Darkness, bad weather prevent search after Svalbard avalanche

No one has been reported missing after a Christmas Day avalanche in a recreational area near Longyearbyen.

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A photo of Todal showing a previous avalanche. (Markus Eckerstorfer)

Authorities in Svalbard say it appears unlikely that anyone was injured in a major avalanche that occurred in a popular snowmobiling area near Longyearbyen, the territory’s main settlement.

Officials with the Sysselmann, the territory’s governing authority, began organizing “all available” personnel and vehicles, including two helicopters, for a search shortly after receiving a report around 6 p.m. on Christmas Day of a recent avalanche in the Todal valley.

The continued risk of avalanche and worsening weather conditions prevented rescuers from beginning their search. They were ordered to stand down at 9:30 p.m., after no one had been reported missing. 

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A search of the area is expected be conducted once weather conditions permit. 

“That could be tomorrow. We’re able to search using helicopters or airplanes, but the situation is especially demanding due to the constant darkness,” a spokesperson for the Sysselmann told Norwegian media on Tuesday.

Avalanches are not uncommon in Svalbard, but global warming makes them more likely. The concern is especially great in Longyearbyen, where a 2015 avalanche six days before Christmas killed two people.

Since then, national and local authorities have been investigating ways to protect the town’s 2,000 residents from future avalanches, including razing homes in the most at-risk areas and improving forecasting methods.