A mountain top called ‘little man’ falls in Norway, and residents weep

  • >>Henrik Pryser Libell and Richard Martyn-Hemphill, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-09-08 14:04:38 BdST

Smoke billowed from the hillside after parts of the unstable mountain top Veslemannen collapsed northwest of Oslo on Thursday. The New York Times

For five years, geologists in Norway had urgently warned that a mountain top called “Little Man” could collapse because of the corrosive effects of heavy rain, destroying huge swaths of the nearby town of Rauma.

The warnings led to repeated evacuations of town residents, and their repeated return, as the mountain northwest of Oslo continued to loom over them and the collapse of Little Man never came.

Then, this past week, after the 16th warning and another evacuation, followed by grumblings of yet another false alarm, about 50,000 cubic meters of rock finally and thunderously collapsed. The collapse registered on seismic monitors as far away as Bergen and Trondheim, according to the Norwegian National Seismic Network, an earthquake service centre managed by the University of Bergen.

Little Man is actually a mountain on top of a mountain called Mannen, which stretches more than 4,200 feet. Little Man made up about 1% of the peak before it fell.

When the rocks tumbled down on Thursday night, they came to rest just short of Rauma — which was received with joyful relief by residents, who watched from a safe distance as the event was broadcast on national television.

“I cried on national TV,” Lars Olav Hustad, the town’s mayor, told reporters. “We could all see the rocks,” he added, and described an “enormous noise” as Little Man fell.

“It was really emotional,” he continued. “I was so happy for the people who had been in this trouble for five years, and then, the tears came.”

Hustad said he was opening his “best bottle of Italian wine” that night over a celebratory dinner with his wife, and was preparing further events on Sunday, when the minister of local government and modernisation would fly in to join the festivities.

That the dangerous collapse of a mountain would turn into a celebratory event speaks to the long ordeal the Norwegian residents had endured after the mountain in Romsdalen began shifting because of heavy rainfall, geologists at the Norwegian water resources agency said.

“At its peak, the mountain moved at a speed of 10 centimetres per day, which is a lot,” geologist Ingrid Skrede said at a news conference in 2016.

The upper part of the mountain, Little Man, known locally as Veslemannen, showed the greatest movement.

“Had Veslemannen fallen in one piece, it could have taken railways, critical infrastructure and homes along with it,” said Kjell-Borge Freiberg, the minister for oil and energy, who had flown in the day after the collapse.

He warned Norwegians to brace for more as the climate shifts, saying, “We know this might happen again, even in places that used to be safe.”

Six other tall mountains in western and northern Norway are under constant monitoring for a potential collapse, because mountains in Norway have collapsed before. The country’s extensive monitoring and prevention program began after a quick clay slide in Verdal took 105 farms with it in 1893, killing 116. Other mountains fell in 1731, 1811, 1905, 1934 and 1936, causing catastrophic tsunamis and multiple deaths.

Because of climate change, scientists in Sweden suspected last year that the highest peak on the country’s Kebnekaise mountain had lost its title because record heat was melting the tip of a glacier that sat atop it. This past week, they confirmed their findings, Gunhild Ninis Rosqvist, a Stockholm University geography professor who had been measuring the glacier annually for several years, told The Guardian.

At the time of the collapse of Little Man, none of the geologists at the Norwegian Water Resources and the Energy Directorate were on the site. Nor did they have to be, according to geologist Gudrun Dreias Majala, who described how she could track it via digital radar feeds and data from other sensors from her home, more than four hours’ drive away.

“For me, it was quite good timing,” Majala said in an interview, noting how the fall happened right before she took parental leave.

The mountain top’s pending collapse had kept all her colleagues on edge, she said, forcing them to regularly cancel vacations. Surprised at the mountain’s reluctance to fall in 2017, she said, her colleagues began to use water pressure techniques to get it to crumble.

The operation got the mountain to move, but just not far enough. By 2018, the mountain at times was too dangerous for geologists to get access to important sections to install or replace sensor equipment.

As the geologists kept sending repeated alarms, Little Man’s brooding defiance of the experts’ expectations drew a surprising cult following. One website called “Has the Man Fallen” claimed daily traffic in the hundreds of thousands at its peak. On Thursday, the site, founded in 2014, finally switched its answer from “No” to “Maybe.”

Hans Petter Eide, an IT consultant who manages the site in his spare time, said he had created it “to make fun of how 24/7 reporters were cooking soup on a nail,” a Scandinavian saying for making a big deal of very little.

Over the past five years, broadcasters live-streamed videos from cameras set up on the mountainside, capturing days of footage of land without the slide. Even for a nation in thrall to the great outdoors and long accustomed to “slow TV” scenes of uninterrupted hours of salmon fishing, knitting and reindeer herding, the 16 false alarms of the expected collapse were an underwhelming spectacle.

Freiberg, the oil and energy minister, defended the alerts. “Better safe than sorry,” he said. “If we hadn’t evacuated, lives could have been lost.”

When the government-owned broadcaster NRK sent the 16th alert saying that large sections of Little Man had finally fallen, it noted in parentheses, “No, we are not kidding.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service