Norway is looking into building underwater bridges

Like this. Image: Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA).

Cool summer breezes drifting over the clear-blue water; snow-covered picture-perfect scenes in winter. It’s hard to imagine how life amongst Norway’s fjords could be anything other than perfect.

But, being us, we’re going to find something to complain about, and it’s probably going to be do to with transport.

The central artery of Norway’s western region, connecting the towns of Kristiansand in the south and Trondheim in the north, is Highway E39. It’s 1,100km long, which is about twice the length of the A1, but it takes a phenomenal 21 hours on average to slog along its full length.

That’s because it crosses seven major fjords, some as big as 5km wide and 1km deep, as well as several other smaller fjords, channels, or inlets. These can only be crossed by ferries, if the seas are kind, or helicopter, if they’re not. When you think about such vast obstructions, 21 hours suddenly doesn’t seem quite so incomprehensible.

You see the problem? 

The solution? “Underwater bridges”, sitting under 30 to 100 feet of water, with vertical tethers attached to the seabed, or to floating pontoons on the water surface. They’re technically known as submerged floating tunnels (SFT), and if employed along the E39 route they could cut travel times from 21 hours to 11 hours. For a route along which one-third of Norwegians live, that’s not to be belittled.

It sounds a deranged, futuristic idea, but it’s not really new at all. In 1865, an MP by the name of Sir Edward James Reed suggested the idea in Parliament as a means of crossing the English Channel. He was a naval architect and author alongside being an MP, and served as Chief Constructor of the Royal Navy from 1863 to 1870.

As a sign of the times, the idea failed to curry much favour in the Commons: MPs were worried it could be used as a method of invasion from the Continent, and his idea of a cross-channel submerged floating tunnel never got much further than fantasy.

The concept has since cropped up in various other guises, none of which is yet to get beyond the blueprint stage. In the 1980s, it was suggested as an option for a crossing of the Messina Strait between mainland Italy and Sicily, and it’s cropped up in Norway as a suggestion for projects including Vallavik, Høgsfjord, and Storfjorden.

The difference is that this time it might actually happen.

A cutaway of how the SFT would look. Image: Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA).

Arianna Minoretti, from the Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA) who are managing the project, says that each fjord has unique “characteristics”, and each will need its own solution. But she particularly likes the SFT option – or “hidden” bridge, as she calls it – and says it is particularly attractive as the technology and resources to construct such a tunnel have only just become feasible.

The SFTs also have the advantage of being, as the name implies, submerged, thereby not impacting on the beautiful landscape of the fjords in the same way as a regular bridge inevitably would.

For a lucky few who spend their time nipping across the fjords of Norway’s west, relief may be in sight. But what about the rest of us who don’t have the good fortune to live in such idyllic, if geographically drastic, climes?

A paper published in 2007 by a Norwegian academic and a group of engineering consultants looked into the possibility that such tunnels could be “extended perhaps by a factor of 100 or more” into imaginatively named “Very Long Tunnels” (VLT).

The primary purpose of such Very Long Tunnels? “To serve the developments in long distance travel in MAGLEV”, the super-fast train system by which trains float above the tracks using magnetic levitation (hence, Maglev).

The vision is that eventually such VLTs could be the conduit of a Trans-Ocean Tunnel (TOT) connecting either side of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most obvious routes would be between London (or the British Isles more generally) and the eastern seaboard of the United States to New York.

One small step for Norway, then, and one giant leap for the future of intercontinental transport.

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What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.

It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.