Committee to Investigate 1995 Suðavík Avalanche

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

An investigative committee will review the government and civil protection department’s decisions in the lead-up to one of Iceland’s most fatal natural disasters, the 1995 Súðavík avalanche. Iceland’s Parliament has approved a motion to on April 30 to establish the committee, RÚV reports. The survivors of the disaster have been calling for such an investigation for nearly 30 years.

On January 16, 1995, an avalanche struck the Westfjords town of Súðavík, killing 14 people, including eight children, and injuring 12 others. Later that year, another avalanche hit the Westfjords town of Flateyri, resulting in 34 fatalities. The disasters greatly impacted the two small villages, as well as changing Icelandic attitudes toward avalanche safety and prevention.

Unanswered questions

The relatives and loved ones of those who died in the Súðavík avalanche have called for such an investigation since the tragedy occurred. They believe that many questions about the lead-up to the disaster remain unanswered, including regarding decision-making on avalanche barriers, how information was relayed to residents, zoning safety, and the operations of the civil protection department before and after the avalanche.

Read More: Avalanche Barriers in Iceland

The committee will consist of three members who will have a year to review and illuminate these issues. The statement on the committee’s formation asserts, however, that there is no suspicion that any criminal activity took place. Members of the government and opposition both expressed support for the investigation.

Read more about the 1995 avalanches in Súðavík and Flateyri in Iceland Review’s article After the Avalanche.

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Partial Easing of Evacuation Orders in East Fjords Announced

East Iceland March 2023

About 800 people have had to leave their homes due to the risk of avalanches in East Iceland. After reevaluating conditions this morning, the local authorities have announced a partial easing of evacuation orders, Vísir reports.

800 people forced to evacuate their homes

As noted yesterday, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management issued evacuation orders for parts of Eskifjörður, Stöðvarfjörður, and Fáskrúðsfjörður, three towns in the East Fjords region, due to the risk of slush floods. Evacuation orders were also in effect for nearby Neskaupstaður and Seyðisfjörður.

Local authorities have now decided to ease some of the evacuation orders, given that the greatest risk of avalanches has passed – although there remains a risk of slush floods. Avalanche experts have been assessing the conditions this morning and will continue to monitor the situation today, according to Víðis Reynisson, a senior police officer with the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

“The night was pretty uneventful. We received information about two slush floods spilling over roads but nothing serious. Nonetheless, the situation is such that there are about 800 people who have had to leave their homes these days and are still away from home. The situation is being fully assessed at the moment,” Víðir told RÚV this morning.

Very few forced to seek refuge at public shelters

Although partial evacuation orders have been lifted, it is clear that not everyone will be allowed to return to their homes today. Víðir told RÚV that the vast majority of the 800 people who had been made to leave their homes had been taken in by friends and family and that, in some places, public shelters had been closed last night as no one had sought refuge. The shelters have, however, been reopened this morning.

As noted by RÚV, the roads in and out of the east fjords remain closed: Fjarðarheiði, Fagridalur, the road from the tunnels to Neskaupstaður, and east Vatnsskarð. Víðir stated that work was being done to open the main roads.

Update: The Icelandic MET Office has decided to lift the evacuation orders for several areas in Seyðisfjörður, Eskifjörður, and Neskaupstaður.

This article was updated at 09.59 AM.

Red Cross Names Fifteen-Year-Old ‘First Aid Person of the Year’ 

Fifteen-year-old Arnór Ingi Davíðsson was named the Red Cross’ 2023 ‘First Aid Person of the Year’ in recognition for his quick thinking and cool head last year when his younger brother Bjarki Þór, then ten, was buried in an avalanche in Hveragerði, South Iceland, RÚV reports. The Red Cross gives out the award annually on the 112th day of the year as 112 is the phone number for emergency services in Iceland.

The brothers were playing near a cliff called Hamarinn when a snowbank slid down the mountainside and buried Bjarki Þór. Arnór Ingi acted quickly, locating his brother under the snow, digging it away to uncover his face, and then calling 112 for assistance. He followed emergency service’s instructions until ICE-SAR volunteers arrived at the scene and were able to take over.

Bjarki Þór Davíðsson, age 11; Screenshot via Red Cross Iceland

Arnór Ingi said calling 112 right away is the most important thing in an emergency situation. “I’m really thankful to have had the emergency line with me, it made all the difference. Just to keep him alive and conscious.”

Hjördís Garðarsdóttir, the dispatcher who answered Arnór Ingi’s 112 praised his bravery in the moment, and the care he took to keep his brother as calm as possible. “I think he did incredibly well,” she remarked in a video that was made for the awards ceremony. “Because if you listen to the call, he goes from being extremely scared to extremely reassuring for his brother.”

Even though his brother survived unharmed, Arnór Ingi says the incident still haunts him a year later.

“Sometimes, I can’t sleep and sometimes, I’m watching a movie and there’s an avalanche and something sticks. It’s uncomfortable to watch sometimes, I get flashbacks, but I’m feeling better about it now. It’s not as bad.”

The award was a real encouragement, said Arnór Ingi. “It’s a bit of a boost—crazy to get this recognition, I’m really proud.”

Pilot Program Could Increase Access to Westfjords Over Winter

There will be increased snow plowing on Strandavegur, a coastal road that runs through the Westfjords municipality of Árneshreppur, from January to March. Per a press release issued by the government on Thursday, snow will be removed twice a week, weather conditions permitting. This pilot project is a collaboration between the Icelandic Regional Development Institute, the Westfjords Regional Development Office, and the municipality itself, and is part of the Fragile Settlements initiative, which aims to strengthen select rural communities throughout the country.

Golli

Strandavegur is an 80-km [50 mi] road that runs along the coast from Bjarnafjörður to Norðurfjörður. Much of the road runs through an area known for avalanches during the winter. Adding the fact that the road is not in terribly good shape, this generally means that authorities are frequently unable to remove snow on Strandavegur or keep it open in the winter. Limited reception also means that it’s more dangerous for employees and travellers to use this route during difficult weather.

If successful, the pilot program could have a significant impact, allowing increased access to a region popular with travellers but largely inaccessible for much of the year. The Westfjords are, perhaps, on even more tourists’ bucket lists these days: in November, Lonely Planet named it one of its top ten regions to visit in 2022.

Snow removal on Strandavegur will be handled by locals and the Icelandic Road Administration, which will maintain the twice-a-week schedule provided that there is no risk of avalanche and that weather conditions will not put employees at risk. The Road Administration will finance the pilot project with an eye to determining whether it will be possible to continue winter snow clearance along the seaside road throughout the winter and if so, how it can be done in a safe manner on a long-term basis.

Avalanches, Landslides, and Slush Floods in East Iceland

Seyðisfjörður

A state of uncertainty has been declared in East Iceland due to the ongoing danger of avalanches and landslides. It rained heavily in the region yesterday and avalanches, slush floods, and rockfalls were reported in a dozen areas spanning from Höfn in Southeast Iceland to Borgarfjörður eystri in the country’s northeast. The events have led to property damage and damaged a power line, but no injuries have been reported.

The most precipitation yesterday was measured at Borgarfjörður eystri, or around 130 mm, while measurements were almost as high in Neskaupsstaður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, and Eskifjörður. In Seyðisfjörður, where devastating mudslides destroyed over a dozen buildings in December, rainfall measured 70mm. The rain has since let up. Weather will be warm and windy today and the risk of avalanches is ongoing.

Three homes were evacuated in Seyðisfjörður last night, but the evacuation order has since been called off.

Three Avalanches Fall Outside Flateyri

Three avalanches fell near the village of Flateyri in the Westfjords on Friday, RÚV reports. Luckily, all three took place away from residential areas. The Icelandic Met Office issued a red alert for avalanches in the area on Saturday and orange alerts for Sunday and Monday.

The smallest of the reported avalanches occurred in the Ytra Bæjargil ravine; the other two were of medium size and took place in two ravines not far away. The Met Office also recorded four very small avalanches elsewhere in the area before noon on Saturday. These took place in Seljadalur valley (near, but outside of, the village of Bolungarvík), Rauðagil ravine (near Ólafsfjörður – two occurrences), and Oddsskarður ski area near Eskifjörður.

Avalanches are not an uncommon occurrence in the Westfjords and Flateyri, in particular, has a tragic history with them. Just this January, two large avalanches fell on the town, flowing over two protective barriers that were built to prevent just such an occurrence. The slides incurred property damage and completely destroyed the town’s small harbour, but thankfully, no one was seriously injured.

This was unfortunately not the case in the case of the avalanche that fell on the town in the early hours of October 26, 1995. Forty-five people were buried by the immense wave of the snow. Twenty-one individuals managed to dig their own way out and four were saved by rescue services, but 20 people – ten men, six women and four children – lost their lives in the event.

The January avalanches in Flateyri ignited criticisms of the government’s allocations of funds from the Landslide Fund to be used for avalanche protection throughout the country. Former Ísafjörður mayor Halldór Halldórsson estimated that the fund has roughly ISK 23 billion ($1.8 million/€1.66 million), which could be used to improve avalanche protection throughout the country.

According to Halldór, plans were initially drawn in the early 2000s that called for the completion of avalanche mitigation measures by 2010. Later regulation pushed this deadline to 2020; current plans assume that the measures won’t be finalised until 2050.

 

Three Hundred Avalanche Guards Installed Around Ísafjörður

Over 300 avalanche guards have been installed throughout Skutulsfjörður in the Westfjords, RÚV reports, including many that were transported atop Mt. Kubbi, which overlooks the town of Ísafjörður, by helicopter.

Mt. Kubbi has a total of 332 caves on its slopes, which makes it particularly at risk of avalanches. The avalanche guards, each of which is 100 to 350 metres tall, will be fastened to the side of the mountain via bore holes. It has taken two summers for teams of eight to eighteen labourers from Lithuania to install the guards, which is very good time for a project of this scope.

Iceland Had 650 Avalanches Last Winter

Avalanche in Iceland February 2014.

There were 650 avalanches in Iceland last winter, RÚV reports. This statistic was one of many reported in a recent report released by the Icelandic Met Office tracking avalanches in 2017-2018. Roughly a third of these avalanches, or 224, were considered to be severe. Per the published findings, there were also 31 landslides and two flash floods during the same season.

Roads were closed 62 times due to avalanches last winter, but the vast majority of these closures took place in the same place: Súðavíkurhlíð, in the Westfjords, which was closed 50 times last winter due to snow blockages.

Additional findings include the fact that there were 11 avalanche cycles recorded last winter, and that the majority of avalanches took place over the course of two days: February 10 and 11. There was a severe snowstorm in the Westfjords at that time, which caused 64 avalanches. Most of these took place on the road through the aforementioned Súðavíkurhlíð, but they also took place at other locations throughout the Westfjords.

Most of the avalanches recorded last winter, or 434 of 650, were dry slab avalanches. There were 66 wet slab avalanches and 65 were loose wet avalanches.

Sixty-three of the avalanches were caused by people. One hiker was seriously injured in one of these manmade events, and two experienced hypothermia after getting stuck in an avalanche on Grímsfjall volcano on the Vatnajökull glacial ice cap.