Avalanches cut off northern Norway | Polarjournal
An avalanche Saturday morning spread a wall of snow four metres high over a 300m section of northern Norwegian road (Photo: Narvik Havn)

When the E6 motorway through the Kvænangsfjellet pass closes during the winter due to the threat of avalanche — something that happened 80 times last winter — northern Norway is not, strictly speaking, cut off from the rest of the country. However, the alternative to the 300km route between the cities of Tromsø and Alta is a detour that takes motorists through Sweden and Finland, doubling the distance.

Efforts to make the 25km stretch less prone to closure have been given priority. In 2017, the government at the time approved a 2.2 billion kroner (€220 million) plan to build three tunnels that would allow the road to bypass the riskiest stretches.

In the meantime, studies of the road determined that only two tunnels were necessary (the dashed red lines in the map below), but after the road was closed twice last week (with the second closure still in effect at the time of publication) due to avalanches on a stretch of the road that will no longer be protected by a tunnel, local authorities are asking Nye Veier, the national agency that is responsible for overseeing construction of the road, to consider building the third anyway.

Nye Veier’s planned two-tunnel re-routing of the E6 motorway (red line) would have it by-pass the where the risk of avalanche is highest
During heavy snow, the Kvænangsfjellet pass remains open but traffic can be required to travel in convoys (Photo: Statens Vegvesen)

The concern is that Nye Veier’s study puts more emphasis on the up-front cost of building a third tunnel than it does on the costs associated with closing the road so frequently has locally. The closures hit the seafood industry particularly hard, but not being able to transport people to and from healthcare facilities is another big concern.

Nye Veier is looking into last week’s avalanches and whether the conditions that led to them mean a third tunnel might be necessary. Because the immediate cause is a stretch of horrible weather that caused avalanches and dangerous driving conditions throughout Norway, that is not likely, but, as temperatures warm, the expectation is that weather of that sort will only become more common.

Nye Veier has been tasked with making Kvænangsfjellet a predictable winter road. While this falls within its remit of building safe and passable roads, the cost of doing so must be realistic, it undercores. Bringing all that together will require skilful navigation.

Statens Vegvesen’s overview of road closures and adverse weather warnings for 25 Jan
Avalanches during the recent spell of bad weather cut off roads in other parts of the region. Here, snow covers the road near the village of Beisfjord (Photo: Hålogalad Kraft Nett)

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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