New Proposal Calls for Overhaul of Avalanche Barriers

Flateyri after avalanche

According to a new government proposal, improvements to avalanche barriers will be made in ten different places in Iceland over the next ten years, RÚV reports. The plan aims to finalise avalanche protection in densely populated at-risk areas.

Plan of Action

Last week, the government introduced a new plan for strengthening Iceland’s infrastructure. The proposal comes in the wake of an exceptionally inclement winter; two storms battered Iceland in December and February, revealing weaknesses in Iceland’s energy grid and telecommunications system, among other things. Three avalanches also swept through the Westfjords in January, exposing deficiencies in local avalanche barriers.

Avalanche Protection

The new government proposal aims to finalise avalanche protection in Iceland; the avalanches that struck Flateyri and Súgandafjörður in January highlighted the fact that resources from the Landslide Fund had over the years been employed for other purposes and that avalanche protection had been lagging. The plan calls for the finalisation of avalanche protection by the year 2030.

Over the next five years, improvements will be made to avalanche barriers in Patreksfjörður, Hnífsdalur, Flateyri, Siglufjörður, Seyðisfjörður, Neskaupstaður, and Eskifjörður. Between 2025 and 2030, construction in Flateyri and Siglufjörður will be completed while work will be continued in the areas mentioned above, including Tálknafjörður, Bíldudalur, and Ólafsvík.

If the timeline holds, the strengthening of avalanche barriers in densely populated at-risk area will be completed 25 years earlier than initially expected, the government’s website states.

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.

 

Ministers to Visit Flateyri in Wake of Avalanches

Bjarni, Katrín, Sigurður Ingi coalition

The chairmen of the three coalition parties, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Bjarni Benediktsson, and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, will travel by helicopter to Flateyri this afternoon, RÚV reports. The ministers intend to survey the damage wrought by two large avalanches that descended upon the town this week.

Significant Damages

Just before midnight on January 15, two large avalanches fell on the town of Flateyri in the Westfjords (and one in Súgandafjörður, as well). Although no one was seriously injured, properties were damaged, and Flateyri’s small-boat harbour was completely destroyed.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister and chairman of the Left-Green Party; Bjarni Benediktsson, Minister of Finance and chairman of the Independence Party; and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Transport and Local government, and chair of the Progressive Party, will travel by the coast guard helicopter to Flateyri this afternoon. The ministers will spend the day in the Westfjords, surveying the damage caused by the avalanches, before returning to Reykjavík in the evening.

Representatives from the Icelandic Red Cross and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management will also be travelling with the ministers, including Hulda Ragnheiður Árnadóttir, director of the National Catastrophe Insurance of Iceland, and Jón Svanberg Hjartarson, director of ICE-SAR.

The Landslide Fund

As RÚV reported this morning, former mayor of Ísafjörður Halldór Halldórsson has criticised the government’s allocation of funds to avalanche protection. As a board member of the Landslide Fund, Halldór estimates that the fund has roughly ISK 23 billion, which could be used to improve avalanche protection throughout the country.

According to Halldór, plans were initially drawn in the aughts that called for the completion of mitigation measures against avalanches in 2010. Later regulation pushed back these plans to 2020. Current plans assume that these measures won’t be finalised until 2050.

“We must prioritise and act quickly … I’m glad that the government has declared that it will examine the protective barriers. Everything needs to be as safe as possible, so that future avalanches won’t flow over the barriers.”

Snow from both of the avalanches that fell in Flateyri this week flowed over two protective barriers, which were constructed following a large avalanche in 1995.

Halldór added that there is much that needs to be done in the Westfjords, in the Eastfjords, and in North Iceland: “I’ve thought a lot about how these protective measures are decided in the eyes of the law. We’re only protecting residential properties, not residential areas or harbours.”