Snjóflóð

31 01 2013

All in all, the years of 1994 and 1995 were bad years for the inhabitants of the Westfjords.The first catastrophe was in Tungudalur April 5th 1994. The avalanche fell outside of the town of Ísafjörður, in an area where evacuation would not have been considered. As often before it fell across the skiing area (which has been moved), then continued across a minor slope and down a steeper one into the valley Tungudalur. The avalanche destroyed 40 summer cottages and killed one person. Luckily this was just after Easter and most of the people who had been staying in the cottages had  recently left. Only 4 remained that night.

January 15th 1995, following a long bout of heavy snowfall and general bad weather, an avalanche struck the small town of Súðavík, demolishing 20 houses and killing a total of 14 people. This event came as a surprise to the people of the Westfjords and horrified them. The worst, however, was yet to come.

On the morning of October 26th that same year, another avalanche struck, this time devastating the equally small town of Flateyri (now a mere 30-minute drive from Súðavík). Some 500,000 tons of wet snow build-up crept from the ravine Skollahvilft (literally: “Demon’s gully”), destroying close to thirty buildings and killing 20 people.

These events came as a shock to most Icelanders, serving as a reminder of just how dependent they still were on the mercy of nature. Much grief and soul-searching followed. The inhabitants of the Westfjords, now began to realize they lived an extremely unsafe, even uninhabitable, area. Following the devastation of the town, close to 100 people left for good, many not able to cope with the memories of tragedy and others left with no reason to stay. A hundred people moving away may not seem a lot for the average American, but for a town that in its heyday counted about 500 inhabitants, it was catastrophic.

The high school students in Ísafjarðarbær  made these presentations. In their own words…

In addition to the avalanches in 1995, a neighboring town, Hnifsdalur, was also struck by an avalanche in 1910.

Today, there is a great deal of research and avalanche protections. These avalanches made it clear that a substantial number of people in several Icelandic towns and villages live in areas where avalanche risk is unacceptable. Although extensive evacuations may be used to reduce the risk to some extent, this can only be viewed as a temporary measure. Avalanche protective measures or land use changes are necessary for a permanent solution to this problem. Protective measures against snow- and landslides are widely used to improve the safety of settlements in avalanche-prone areas.

The inverted V-shaped structure is a man made deflection dam to protect the town of Flateryi.

The inverted V-shaped structure is a man made deflection dam to protect the town of Flateyri. Nearly half the town of Súðavík was moved to areas that are not avalanche prone.

In use in Ísafjarður are avalanche walls, braking mounds and avalanche dams to divert the flow of avalanches away from houses. Sometimes it is more efficient to relocate homes or have summer only homes. The conditions for the reconstruction of the cottages in Tungudalur were that they would not be used during the winter time.

In use in Ísafjarður are this 18m tall avalanche wall (foreground), braking mounds (“moguls” in background) and avalanche dams to divert the flow of avalanches away from houses (horizontal slope in front of mounds). Sometimes it is more efficient to relocate homes or have summer only homes. The conditions for the reconstruction of the cottages in Tungudalur were that they would not be used during the winter time.

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