Norway's rugged west coast is home to glaciers, waterfalls and dozens of fjords that draw hordes of tourists each summer. But navigating the extreme topography of the region, which is home to a third of the country's population, isn't easy.
Driving the nearly 700 miles along the coastal route from the city of Kristiansand in the south to the city of Trondheim now takes about 21 hours and requires seven ferry crossings. To cut travel time in half, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration has launched a nearly $40 billion transportation project that will include the world's longest floating bridge and — perhaps — a first-of-its-kind floating underwater traffic tunnel.
"In the history of Norway, this is one of the really greatest infrastructure projects ever," says Kjersti Kvalheim Dunham, who is managing the project, which runs along Norway's E39 highway. The closest equivalent transport project in Norway is the 308-mile railway from Oslo to Bergen, which was completed more than a century earlier.
Government officials say replacing the ferries will make it more convenient for travelers and also help people in the region look farther afield for jobs and boost the local economy. Kare Martin Kleppe is the mayor of Tysnes, a collection of islands about an hour and 45 minutes south of the city of Bergen by road and ferry. Kleppe, who at 26 is Norway's youngest mayor, looks forward to having a floating bridge replace the ferry and cut travel time across the fjord from 40 minutes to five.
"The ferry is a beautiful trip, but it's more an obstacle than a good connection," says Kleppe, standing on a dock looking out over the gray waters of the fjord as seagulls circle overhead.
The population of Tysnes has fallen by half over the past century to about 2,800. Kleppe says better transport connections will encourage more investment and make it easier for the region's fishing industry to get its salmon to market.
"It's a saying that there's nothing in the world that is in a bigger rush than a dead fish," Kleppe says.
Conventional cable-stayed bridges and tunnels won't work in parts of Norway's west coast because some of the fjords are simply too deep. For instance, the Bjornafjorden is more than 1,800 feet deep.
This floating, multi-span suspension bridge in Norway will traverse extremely deep waters. It will float on pontoons tethered to the sea floor with steel cables. In order to maintain stability, the tops of the towers will be tied together. @i_firth #TED2018 pic.twitter.com/wlMardf1Pg— TED Talks (@TEDTalks) April 12, 2018
The government's solution is to build a bridge that would float on pontoons that would be connected to the fjord's silted seabed with suction anchors. Norway, the United States, Poland, Belarus and other countries already use floating bridges. Another fjord, the Sulafjorden, which is 1,300 feet deep, poses a similar challenge. One possible solution is something no one has ever built before: a submerged, floating traffic tunnel.
Arianna Minoretti, an Italian engineer who works for the public road administration, says the tunnel could be made of concrete to provide ballast and float about 100 feet below the surface. It could be fastened to floating pontoons or tethered to the sea bed. Minoretti says there is something of a global race to see who can build the first floating underwater traffic tunnel.
"When I started working with this type of structure, I felt really excited," says Minoretti, who came to Norway specifically to work on the E39 project. "You can be an engineer and live your [whole] life without having this chance."
Of course, there are dangers. Norwegian submarines train in the fjords, so there's the risk of collision. A terrorist's bomb could rip open the tunnel, sending water pouring in, which is why, Minoretti says, the Norwegian government is working very carefully on designs.
Researchers test some of the potential materials for the bridge at the Structural Impact Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the city of Trondheim. The lab simulates the effects of a bomb blast on thick slabs of concrete using compressed air inside a giant, blue, steel "shock" tube. For instance, lab researchers have tested the limits of materials if they were subjected to a 1,700-pound vehicle bomb at a distance of nearly 100 feet.
"We want to learn more about how the material behaves," says Vegard Aune, an associate professor in structural engineering at the university, "what's the capacity of the material."
Engineers will then use that information to help design the tunnel accordingly.
The purpose of this bold transportation project is to replace the ferries and slash travel time, but talk to people on the ferries and you'll find they love the ride and the tradition. They see it as an enforced rest in increasingly hectic lives, an opportunity to sip coffee with friends and munch on svele, a Norwegian snack that resembles a pancake, as the mountains pass by.
"Keep the ferries; skip the tunnels," says Kjell Mevic, who works in the merchant marine and is enjoying the ride one afternoon with his wife and cousins. Mevic, who wears a black T-shirt that reads "Born to Fish, Forced to Work," says he is particularly concerned about the proposals for a submerged floating tunnel, which he sees as a natural target for terrorists.
"An explosion in the tunnel will be like [popping] a bottle of champagne," he said. "Kaboom. Nothing left."
Norwegians are sensitive to terror threats. In 2011, an anti-Muslim extremist now named Fjotolf Hansen, formerly Anders Behring Breivik, gunned down 69 mostly young people at a summer camp on Utoya island, after killing eight people with a car bomb in Oslo.
Many along Norway's west coast are skeptical about the transport project because of the huge cost and aren't convinced it will ever be completed. But others look forward to a time when they won't have to rush to catch the next ferry, which is what Svein Bjarne Aase, a bus driver, was doing as church let out one Sunday in the town of Leirvik.
"It will be much easier for everybody," says Aase as he walks swiftly to his car. "I think that is our future, to get a bridge or tunnel under the sea."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This next story takes us to the west coast of Norway, which is divided by dozens of inlets called fjords. Driving from one end to the other takes 21 hours and requires seven ferry crossings. This scenic drive is in the news because Norway wants to cut the travel time in half. It is supporting a nearly $40 billion project, which would include a floating bridge and maybe even a floating underwater traffic tunnel. NPR's Frank Langfitt took some of the drive as it is now.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is a ferry on a huge fjord on the west coast of Norway. We're surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It's really windy. I'm getting hit by bow spray. And you can see small - it's a rural area. You can see a lot of small, wooden Norwegian houses here. And we're just about to come into dock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEA GULLS CRYING)
LANGFITT: Kare Martin Kleppe greets me at the water's edge. He's the mayor of Tysnes, a collection of islands, and he can't wait for a floating bridge.
KARE MARTIN KLEPPE: The ferry is a beautiful trip, but it's more an obstacle than a good connection.
LANGFITT: A floating bridge would replace the ferry, cutting travel time across the fjord from 40 minutes to five, making it easier to attract investment here, where the population has fallen by about half over the past century to 2,800, and making it easier for the region's fishing industry to get its salmon to market.
KLEPPE: It's a saying that there's nothing in the world that is in a bigger rush than a dead fish. We need to keep it fresh.
ARIANNA MINORETTI: My name is Arianna Minoretti, and I worked for the Norwegian Public Road Administration.
LANGFITT: Minoretti's an Italian engineer. She came from Milan just to work on this project because it was so challenging. Minoretti says in parts of Norway's west coast, conventional cable-stayed bridges and tunnels won't work.
MINORETTI: Because some of these fjords are really, really deep. We have some fjords that drive 1 kilometer deep. That is too much.
LANGFITT: One potential solution, build something no one ever has, a submerged, floating traffic tunnel. Minoretti says it could be made of concrete to provide ballast and float a hundred feet or so below the surface. It could be fastened to floating pontoons or tethered to the sea bed.
MINORETTI: When I started working with this type of structure, I felt really excited, like, wow, this is something that you can be an engineer and live your life without having this chance. So it's really unique.
LANGFITT: Of course, there are dangers. Norwegian submarines train in the fjord so there's the risk of collision. A terrorist bomb could rip open the tunnel, sending water pouring in. Which is why the Norwegian government is working carefully on designs. Today Vegard Aune is simulating the effects of a bomb blast using compressed air inside a steel tube. Aune is an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the city of Trondheim.
VEGARD AUNE: The pressure we generate today is similar to a vehicle-borne improvised device of 800 kilos of improvised explosives at the distance of 30 meters.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIMULATOR HISSING AND POPPING)
LANGFITT: The purpose of this bold transportation project is to replace the ferries and slash travel time...
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)
LANGFITT: ...But many people who ride the ferries love them, like Vanke Setrha, who's enjoying the enforced rest as she watches the mountains pass by.
VANKE SETRHA: If you're driving a long distance, it's good to have the ferry. You need a break to relax, take a cup of coffee and get new energy.
LANGFITT: Another passenger, Kjell Mevic, who works in the Merchant Marine, enjoys the scenic crossings, too, but worries about the potential alternative.
KJELL MEVIC: Keep the ferries. Skip the tunnels.
LANGFITT: Really? Why?
MEVIC: Because an explosion in the tunnel will be like a bottle of champagne. Kaboom. Nothing left.
LANGFITT: So you've heard about the idea of doing the underwater tunnels?
LANGFITT: You don't think they're safe?
MEVIC: Well, they're probably safe, but there's a good target for terrorists.
LANGFITT: Many along Norway's west coast are skeptical of the project because of the huge cost, and they aren't convinced it will ever be completed. But Svein Bgerne Aase, a bus driver, looks forward to it.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).
LANGFITT: I met him one Sunday as he was rushing out of church to catch a ferry.
SVEIN BGERNE AASE: It will be much easier for everybody who's traveling. So I think that is our future, to get a bridge or tunnel under the sea.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE RUNNING)
LANGFITT: And with that, Svein drove off to make an early afternoon ferry, which for now, is the only way he can complete his bus routes. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tysnes, Norway.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOREALISM'S "FORGED BY THE WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.