Wednesday, 28 February 2007

More Outer Hebrides sunsets...

Eye-catching and spectacular sunsets frequently happen in the Outer Hebrides, all year round. To the extent that I've seen more cracking ones in two and a quarter years of living here than in my previous 36 years elsewhere. Here's a few local sunsets from various Flickr photographers.

First, a pleasant rural one from a clear day in South Uist, by Shuggy Spicer:


Next up, another one from the same photographer, taken in South Uist last September:


Next up, one from Niall Corbet, of a sunset and pink rainbow in Lewis. I'd never seen a pink rainbow before moving here, but those and double rainbows are not uncommon here:


Another one from Niall, this time of a Gearrannan sunset:


Next, from Watscape Photo, a picture of Tarbert (the metropolis of Harris), taken looking back and westerly at the town from a departing boat:


And finally, one from Saint.Tobias of a sunset over Canna:


Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Top security: Heathrow? JFK? O'Hare? Schiphol? No, it's ...

 ... Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. The West Highland Free Press reported on the increased security presence and controls at the main airport in Lewis:

"A tiny clear bottle of perfume, much less than 100ml, was seized from another woman who was also soon shoe-less.

Small tins of Vaseline were coming in for extra special attention. Obviously highly dangerous, they could not be taken on board unless they were carried in a special see-through plastic bag which must somehow render the dangerous tins incapable of exploding. The special bags have to be purchased for 20 pence. How enterprising.

Suddenly it was my turn. Fortunately I wasn’t carrying perfume or Vaseline. My bag raised no questions. Amazingly, the two black puddings I had bought in Charlie Barley’s triggered no alarms.

Stornoway Airport was not in a state of High Alert that day. These are apparently the normal, everyday security measures at one of the smallest airports in the country. No one, it seems, is safe from the most intrusive security checks I have come across in Europe. I have been told a baby’s nappy was opened recently to check its contents. I hope this story is not true. If it is, this is surely a rare form of insanity."

Yep, security is very tight at airports such as Stornoway. The same goes for Benbecula airport, where I've done the shoe removing thing, had bags searched, demonstrated that various devices are real, and undergone several other trials (thankfully non involving a latex glove and intimate inspection). Not really a problem (and it's better to be safe), and it hasn't delayed a flight. Despite travelling to 38 countries, and flying to American not long after 9/11, Benbecula is the only airport where I've had an item confiscated.

However, I do have severe sympathy for whoever has landed the job of checking the contents of babies nappies. After the last trip to the mainland, a turbulent ride where the seatbelts were on the whole trip, the air conditioning didn't seem to work and a baby obviously did a "full load" just as we were taking off, I can verify that global greenhouse gases do not hold a candle to what a Hebridean baby can produce at the most inconvenient of times.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Tunnel to the Hebrides

My letter submitted to the Stornoway Gazette for possible publication this week, with some links to further information.

+ + + + +

It was heartening to read of serious consideration for a mainland fixed-link in last week's Stornoway Gazette. However, this was spoilt by reading in the mainland media of imagined costs being "Well over 10 billion pounds" [article in Independent, Daily Mail article picture by CJCampbell]. Probably some commentators, rather than research the issue, assumed the cost would be the same as the incompetently managed English Channel Tunnel. That infamous project consisted of two train tunnels, tracks, a service tunnel, and huge support infrastructure. It was marred by bi-nation politics and contractual problems, resulting in one of the worst cost overruns in engineering history.

The cost of a fixed-link mainland connection here should be very different - if it is built the "Norwegian way". Norway has over 900 tunnels, carving through and under all manner of geology, of which 22 are subsea road tunnels. Using their methods, a tunnel from the Hebrides to the mainland could cost around 110 million pounds – just one percent of the cost of the Channel Tunnel!

Examine the Lærdalstunnelen [basic statistics in English here, more detail here] in Norway. This road tunnel, completed in 2000, is nearly 25 kilometres long. It was built with safety in mind, containing 15 turning bays, 48 lay-bys, ventilation, and several huge rest-caverns with different coloured lighting to break up the monotony of driving. Total project cost? Not 10 billion pounds, but 86 million pounds.

This level of cost is more the rule than the exception for sensibly planned long-distance tunnels. A recent Comhairle presentation gave similar costs for other Norwegian tunnels, such as the Frøya (5.6km for £44m), Hitra (5.3km for £31m) and Kristiansund (6km for £51m) road tunnels. These connect mainland Norway with islands containing a few thousand inhabitants each – sound familiar? Norwegian tunnels can also be deep; in the last few weeks, the "dig" stage of the Eiksund road tunnel [see page 9 of this 6Mb PDF-format magazine] has been completed. This serves the island communities of Hareid, Herøy, Sande and Ulstein, at its deepest point being 287 metres below sea level and 61 metres below the sea bed.

There's an added bonus with digging a tunnel – it generates rock, which could either be used to build and strengthen much-needed coastal defences, or sold for revenue. As Lafarge lobbied for several years in Harris, there's a keen demand for this commodity.

It is not surprising that progressive northern periphery countries, such as Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and the Faroe Islands, are turning more towards tunnels. Unlike the "last century technology" of causeways and bridges, tunnels do not suffer the ravages of storms, exacerbate erosion, impede boat passage or interfere with tidal flows and fishing grounds. Islands connected by tunnels do not suffer food and supply shortages or disruption to businesses, when bad weather closes causeways, bridges and ferry services. And unless cryptozoologists discover an "undersea bird", it is unlikely that the RSPB will be able to lodge a planning objection.

The next time you are crossing an exposed causeway in windy weather, your plane hits turbulence and suddenly drops with your stomach, or you revisit your fried breakfast over the side of a ferry on a heaving sea, think: wouldn't you prefer to be driving through a smooth, quick, incident-free tunnel instead?

It has been a long struggle for the funding to repair causeways damaged in the January 2005 storm. Does anyone seriously believe that, when these same local causeways are again damaged by major storms, the Scottish Executive will repeatedly agree to the Comhairle's cap-in-hand grovels for repair funding?  Sooner rather than later, the response from Edinburgh will be to "fix it yourself or go the same way as St Kilda". In the long-term, tunnels, not fragile and exposed causeways and bridges, are the only robust, sustainable and future-proof way of connecting these islands to each other and to the mainland.

More information

Outline of the Breiðadalsheiði – Botnsheiði road tunnels in Iceland:

The Hvalfjördur tunnel in Iceland. This went under a fjord and struck hot springs, but was still completed 8 months ahead of schedule:

The Norðoyatunnilin tunnel in the Faroe Islands: 

International Tunnelling Assocation:

Norwegian Tunnelling Society:

Icelandic Tunnelling Society:

Community council in Orkney considers tunnel (point 6g):

Orkney fixed-link article in The Times:

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Stop whining and grow up

3 centimetres of forecast snow has fallen on much of southern England. See this news story entitled "Heavy snow causes travel problems". The deepest snow is a shockingly deep ... erm 9cm (less than 4 inches). The media goes into predictable frenzy. The news is filled with images of abandoned cars. Schools are shut; airport runways are closed; train services are disrupted ("wrong type of snow"). On the lunchtime news, a person walking a dog along a deserted main road with about 1 inch of snow of it exclaims that "It's terrible, so atrocious." Get a grip.

The media aren't helping. To quote from the BBC news website:

The BBC Weather Centre said overnight temperatures would fall to as low as -3C (26F) ... where overnight temperatures plummeted to -4C ...

"Plummeted"? To -4C? Well, that proves that global warming was all a sham. Meanwhile, here were the temperatures in Finland on monday morning:


The Finns shrug their shoulders, drop their kids off at school (no reason for them to close), then drive off for a normal days work. Very cold weather with heavy snow doesn't mean being trapped indoors. Instead, the Finns go out, take pictures and frolic in the forests dressed as Elves. Go see some of the pictures - especially the "Magical" set - in this Flickr collection.

And on the subject of the Finns when it gets a bit chilly, here's a comparison chart doing the blog rounds:

+15 °C: The Spanish wear woolly hats and gloves. Finns are sunbathing.

+10 °C: Without much success, the French try to turn the heating on. Finns start planting flowers.

+5 °C: Cars in Italy don’t start up. Finns drive convertibles and put their roofs down.

0 °C: Water freezes. The river in Helsinki turns a bit thick.

-5 °C: National state of emergency declared in England. Finns stop sunbathing.

-10 °C : Scots turn the central heating on. Finns change their t-shirts to jumpers.

-20 °C: The Swedish stay inside; England is evacuated. Finns barbecue a few more sausages before the winter starts.

-30 °C : The Greek die. Finns won’t hang their clothes outside anymore.

-40 °C: Fake Santa Clauses move south. Outdoor training of the Finnish Army is cancelled due to warm weather.

-50 °C: The Danish lose their teeth. Finns rent films and stay inside.

-60 °C: Polar bears leave the North Pole. The Finnish Army starts training outdoors.

-70 °C: Siberians move to Moscow. Finns lose their calm, because you can no longer store vodka in your garden.

-273 °C : Absolute zero. Finns say: "It’s bloody cold outside!"

-300 °C : Hell freezes over. Finland wins the Eurovision Song Contest.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Three from Shooderz

Three pictures of these parts from Flickr user Shooderz. First up, some waves crashing on a Harris beach:


Next, a calmer sea further up the coast in Lewis:


Finally, back to Berneray. Local beach for local people :-)