Tunnel Vision: Norway’s shipping proposals

The Stad tunnel will be capable of supporting ships of up to 16,000 tonnes The Stad tunnel will be capable of supporting ships of up to 16,000 tonnes
27 May
Norway is to undercut a mountainous peninsula to create the world’s first sea shipping tunnel

‘The Stad tunnel will be the world’s first ocean shipping tunnel,’ says Terje Andreassen, manager of a grand project aiming to dig directly through the Norwegian Stad mountain peninsula. It is hoped that the 1.7 kilometre tunnel will provide a safer passage for ships than the current, exposed route.

Sticking out like an antler from Norway’s coast, the peninsula reaches northwards before spreading into three prongs of land. Exposed to the brunt of the Norwegian sea, the jagged seafront can make for treacherous sailing and often records the highest wind speeds in the country. The solution seems obvious from above: cut through the peninsula at its narrowest point. However, the topography presents a problem.

‘In another country, if the landscape was flatter, you could build a canal,’ says Andreassen. However, in this part of Norway, the land rises to 500 metres above sea level in a mountainous plateau that is maintained across most of the area.

Therefore, the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA) will drill tunnels horizontally from both sides of the mountains in order to meet in the middle, removing three million cubic metres of rock in the process. This process will take three to four years to complete and cost an estimated KR2.6billion (£240million). While construction has not yet begun, the tunnel has been included in the government’s most recent transport plan, and, according to the NCA, could open in early 2023.

Though a first for ocean shipping, navigating under mountains is not a new idea. The UK’s deepest underground canal, the Standedge tunnel, opened in 1811 to allow traders to pass under the Pennines. The world’s longest example, meanwhile, is the seven-kilometre Rove tunnel in France, although this is currently disused, having been closed in 1963.

Even at Stad, plans for a tunnel have been pushed back and forth since the 19th century. It was first proposed in a newspaper article in 1874 and was taken up again by Germans during the WWII occupation.

Over the last half century, plans have been revised and debated, however, this was the first year it received government support. ‘There has not been enough political will to do it until now,’ says Andreassen. ‘The focus has been on constructing new roads.’ Indeed, Norway is also home to the 24km Laerdal road tunnel, the longest in the world.

Shipping is the second most important industry to Norway, with petroleum products being the most important cargo. If completed, the Stad tunnel will likely be used by vessels going between offshore oil platforms, as well as a new high-speed passenger ferry between Bergen and Alesund.

Critics, meanwhile, note that the tunnel would not shorten the journey – it would take just as much time to go around the peninsula as under it – and that the high cost would outweigh the benefit.

However, Andreassen believes the environmental upshots of the tunnel could be giving the plan a new edge. ‘Fuel use and pollution are bigger concerns to politicians than they have ever been before,’ he says. ‘A tunnel could reduce both of these.’

This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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