The Runehamar Tunnel on the west coast of Norway is a piece of disused underground road infrastructure that has found an unexpected second life through its new and bizarre purpose: it now exists solely as a place for setting fire to things.
Meant as a test site for "investigating catastrophic tunnel fires", the abandoned subterranean corridor for cars is now a kind of automotive funeral pyre, a sacrificial hollow carved into the earth like something from a J.G. Ballard novel, where various vehicles and their unsuspecting cargo are reduced to ashes in the name of transportation science. It is a furnace maintained by professional engineers and their cinematography teams: a well-filmed oven of logistics and transport.
According to a long report published by the Norwegian Public Roads Association, these controlled fires are not only necessary but irreplaceable:
There is a need for more detailed knowledge on how and why various semi-trailer cargos burn so strongly and why they spread so quickly. The high heat exposure from the semi-trailers to the tunnel linings also needs more focus. The only reasonable way of finding an answer to these questions is to carry out systematic large scale experiments that can provide a better basis for the design of technical systems in road tunnels.
The tunnel, of course, is also carefully instrumented for recording thermal change in whatever particular pile or simulated wreck may be burning; sensors register different zones of combustion and track the dispersal of gas. The tunnel has also been architecturally augmented, complete with a new panelized internal steel structure and emergency sprinklers.
Earlier this year, for example, one of the tunnel's large-scale tests generated more than 100 million watts of thermal energy: "420 wooden pallets will be placed in the tunnel to simulate the pay load of a truck," Tunnel Business Magazine reported at the time. "This fuel is expected to produce a fire that radiates energy at about 100 million watts. It is as much as 2.5 million ordinary 40-watt lamps, giving an idea of how much energy a fierce fire can create."
Image via Tunnel Business Magazine
The internal aerodynamics of the tunnel are also pretty fascinating to read about, as the airflow, both in and out of this artificial cave, is also very carefully designed. While huge stacks of cargo disappear in a hellish roar of flame and black smoke, high-powered fans help to pull excess heat from the fire inside; this allows the engineers to experiment with various forms of ventilation that might then be integrated into future tunnel designs. In the process, they study both heat release and smoke dispersion, and they use these huge fans and sprinklers to sculpt a kind of thermal event in the confined space, an underground star of wood, oil, plastic, and flame.
But, in the end, this vision of engineers ritually setting fire to things in a tunnel in the subarctic north is Wagnerian and somewhat surreal, as if a cult of industrial pyromaniacs are practicing their thermal wizardry inside the earth and recording it — even re-watching it again and again — for the natural mysteries trapped within. They have found their altar, this immersive kiln, a place of experimentation and a colosseum for staring at fire.