Detecting dangerous moves

01.12.2015
The relentless struggle between mountain massifs and the force of gravity continues unmonitored in many rural areas around Norway. But geology holds the key to keeping people safe.

| Atle Rotevatn and Janka Rom

The Sør Fjord in Hardanger is a typical west Norwegian landscape.

The Sør Fjord in Hardanger is a typical
west Norwegian landscape.

(Photo: Arne Bjørøen)

 

The Wave (Bølgen) is a Norwegian film which depicts a fjord community hit by a huge flood following a massive landslide. It has proved highly successful in cinemas nationwide.

Actor Kristoffer Joner plays geologist hero Kristian Eikjord – but his real-life counterparts do indeed keep watch on unstable rock formations in various locations.

The best known of these hot spots is Mannen, in the Romsdalen area of western Norway, where 120 000 cubic metres of rock – or 12 000 lorryloads – are threatening to tumble.

Given that mountain ramparts usually move by millimetres, little about the working day of a watchful geologist involves drama or heroic deeds.

But these specialists undoubtedly do a very important job in keeping an eye on the potential threat with their instruments, their knowledge and their experience.

Such tracking is difficult and challenging, and issuing warnings even harder. When rock motion accelerates from “barely measureable” to “just about moving”, it is hard to predict whether a slide might happen in hours, days or years.

And it may not happen at all, which was the case with Mannen last year when locals were evacuated and the whole nation followed the drama.

So sounding an alert presents a very difficult balance between ensuring that people are out of harm’s way and crying wolf by staging repeated evacuations without anything going wrong.

In the case of Mannen, moving residents away was essential – even though the mountainside eventually decided to stay put that winter. And such precautions will be necessary again.

Every spring, the Norwegian media carry reports about roads being blocked by rock falls and landslides – particularly along the deep-furrowed west coast.

Steep-sided fjords, frost erosion and heavy precipitation represent a dangerous combination, even though luck and low population density mean that lives are seldom lost.

For the people who live in these fjordlands, however, driving along stretches of road which are most at risk from such instability can be highly stressful.

Statements such as “a geologist has carried out an inspection” or “a geologist is awaited” recur frequently in online media stories about roads cut by fallen rock.

While tempers rise in the ever-lengthening traffic queues, the experts must decide whether the road is safe enough to be reopened or has to stay closed while safety measures are instituted.

People living at the foot of Mannen may feel they are fortunate that their towering neighbour is under surveillance while they sleep soundly, go to work or take their children to school.

Monitoring goes on here, funded from the government’s deep pockets. In other valleys and fjords, however, the endless struggle between rock and gravity stays unsupervised.

The same applies along roads such as the E16, the main highway between Oslo and Bergen, where the frequent rockslides usually cause little or no harm.

“Things went well this time, too,” people say, but they sleep uneasily and utter a silent prayer that things will go well again when the school bus drives past.

Geologists also participate when roads, railways and tunnels are planned, when the foundations are laid for buildings and other infrastructure, and when groundwater is assessed and channelled.

They are involved on land and at sea, by the coast, in the mountains and along the fjords, and in every Norwegian town and village. Geology is needed everywhere.

For five decades, geoscientists have been searching for and finding oil and gas on the NCS to provide revenues and prosperity from reservoirs several kilometres beneath the seabed.

Geological research is conducted into the endless advance and retreat of glaciers and on the behaviour and history of sea and land in order to understand past and present climates.

The geologist studies important subjects – the origin and development of life, fossils, carbon storage, thermal heat, wind energy and hydropower.

Think, too, about all the technical gadgets and devices people now possess, cars and the like. All are made of materials extracted from earth and rock.

Take a look around at home, at work or perhaps at school. Ignoring food, wood and fabrics, the overwhelming proportion of objects there contain a high proportion of metals, minerals or petroleum (in the form of plastic).

A brief list would include mobiles, light bulbs, baths, ovens, porcelain, cups, bowls, computers, ballpoint pens, glasses, coffeemakers and high-voltage cables. Not to mention aircraft, trains, ambulances, cake slices, paint or selfie sticks.

And geologists, with their expertise about the planet, are crucial for ensuring the production of the mineral resources which go into these products.

Anyone with children has found them coming home with their pockets full of shells or stones after a trip to the beach or into the hills, or asking questions about Tyrannosaurus rex.

Geologists are often asked how the mountains have acquired their form, or to provide the name of a rock someone has found in their garden – or about the threat of landslides and earthquakes.

Both children and adults are interested in the natural world around them, fascinated by rocks, minerals, dinosaurs and volcanoes.

Norwegians enjoy being out in the countryside and the mountains, hiking through hill and dale and casting an inquisitive eye on their majestic surroundings.

Spectacular

Geology is the discipline which deals with this spectacular world and the natural processes which occur in and shape its myriad forms.

Yet the study of science – including the geosciences – is declining in Norwegian schools. If this trend continues, important expertise for overcoming tomorrow’s challenges will be lost.

Children need to have their interest in these subjects stimulated. That will give them important know-how for tackling scientific problems in the future.

If they train to become geologists, they may even find themselves one day rescuing a west Norwegian community or two from the flood waters.

 

Norwegian Continental Shelf no.2-2015

Main page - Contents
Bente Nyland on the NCS: Glass is half-full
The interview: Petroleum minister calls on companies to invest
Thinking outside the box made Maria’s development possible
Special report: 50 years
Norway’s offshores sector safer than before
Safety carries a cost
Seeking to cut documentation
Eldar Myhre and son Aslak discuss what oil has done with Norway
NPD profile: Diskos database crucial for exploration success
Making huge volumes of offshore data available
Adding up to acclaim Rockshot: Tight formations www.norskpetroleum.no: Find facts about the NCS

Topics: Geology