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Scientists use satellites to spot Svalbard avalanches

"It is very likely that extreme weather like this will be more common in the future," geoscientist Bernd Etzelmüller said.

By
Brooks Hays
Radar satellite images reveal dozens of new avalanches in Svalbard. Photo by Copernicus/ESA
Radar satellite images reveal dozens of new avalanches in Svalbard. Photo by Copernicus/ESA

OSLO, Norway, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The Arctic Ocean's mild, rainy autumn has become a mild and rainy winter, triggering avalanches in Svalbard, an archipelago north of mainland Norway.

The lack of sunlight during the polar winter makes observation difficult. But scientists have been able to locate snow and ice slides using radar satellites.

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"They reveal several avalanches all across Svalbard," Bernd Etzelmüller, a geoscientist at the University of Oslo in Norway, said in a news release.

Recent images revealed the presence of 50 new avalanches among a small portion of Svalbard between the ports of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. The satellites can reveal the presence an avalanche but can't ascertain what kind it is.

"However, it's probably a mix of snow, slush and mud," said Andreas Max Kääb, also an Oslo geoscientist. "It's nevertheless dramatic if it affects habited communities at Svalbard. Radar images works completely different than optical images and are sensitive to changes to humidity and ground structure."

Such an abundance of avalanches in Svalbard is rare. Researchers say the slides are proof of an ecosystem thrown off by global warming.

"It is very likely that extreme weather like this will be more common in the future," Etzelmüller said. "This will demand another level of emergency preparedness than what is currently in place, especially close to habited communities."

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