The eavesdropping operation on the harbor porpoise is pure drudgery. On a gray, rainy day, five biologists from the consulting firm BioConsult SH hoist bright yellow marker buoys over the stern of the MiljÃ¸ into the Baltic Sea.
When the task is complete and the buoys are bobbing in the water behind the research ship, BioConsult head Georg Nehls looks satisfied. From now on, underwater microphones will record the tell-tale, staccato clicking noises the porpoises make to get their bearings. The signals help the researchers determine the number of animals and examine their behavior.
The eavesdropping operation has only one objective. The zoologists are trying to figure out whether these marine mammals would be able to tolerate a major construction site in their immediate environment. Europe's biggest transportation project is about to begin off the shores of Denmark's Lolland Island. A 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge, or a tunnel that would be no less imposing, is planned between RÃ¸dby in Denmark and Puttgarden on the German island of Fehmarn.
The crossing, expected to be complete by 2018 at the latest, would directly connect Germany with Denmark, replacing the Scandlines ferries, which currently operate along the route once every half hour.
The benefits are obvious: no seasickness and no waiting at the dock, as well as shortening the drive from Hamburg to Copenhagen by one hour.
German Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and his Danish counterpart Carina Christensen signed a treaty on the construction of a link between the two countries last September. Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, is scheduled to vote on the measure this Thursday.
A Project of "Historic Dimensions" or "Money Pit"?
Supporters of the plan, like Jörn Biel, the nonpartisan economics minister of the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, characterize it as a project of "historic dimensions." Critics, on the other hand, deride the planned structure as a "connection between two rapeseed fields" and worry that it could turn into an economic and environmental disaster. "Most members of parliament don't even know what it is they're voting on," says Rainder Steenblock, the Green Party's spokesman on European policy. "The project could turn into a very expensive money pit for Germany."
From a technical standpoint, the structure is anything if not impressive. The favored version is a suspension bridge, 65 meters (213 feet) high, supported by four pylons, each 280 meters (918 feet) tall. The bridge's steel cables would be designed to carry a four-lane highway and two rail lines. For the Danes, whose parliament ratified the treaty in March, it would be the "project of the century." In Berlin, on the other hand, there are few firm supporters of the crossing. The main reason for this lack of enthusiasm is that the original idea to secure private investors for the project was a complete failure. In late 2006, all potential investors withdrew their support, citing a lack of reliable financial forecasts.
Transportation Minister Tiefensee turned over the colossal project to the Danes, probably in the hope that it would be buried as a result. But Copenhagen surprised the Germans by jumping on the idea. Under the new deal, Denmark will pay the entire cost of bridge construction, estimated at a minimum of €4.4 billion ($6.2 billion). In return, the Danes will collect EU subsidies and the estimated tolls of roughly €60 per car. Germany, for its part, will only be responsible for the so-called interior connection between Hamburg and Puttgarden.
The risk seems manageable enough, and yet the project has sparked growing doubts in Germany, partly because of the potential environmental damage it might cause.
A "Bottleneck" for Migratory Birds
"An estimated 100 million birds travel through the Fehmarn Belt each year," says Malte Siegert of the Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). He describes the region as "bottleneck" in Europe's migratory bird system, comparable with the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bosporus.
Most migratory birds are songbirds that fly at high altitudes. However, a 1999 feasibility study warns that many wading birds and waterfowl pass through the belt "at bridge level." Up to a million common elders that fly through the strait in the autumn could be at risk. Ornithologists warn that many of them could perceive the structure as an impregnable barrier or could collide with the bridge.
The proposed bridge also poses a risk to shipping. Up to 50,000 ships pass through the Belt region each year. While large ships currently have a 10-kilometer-wide channel at their disposal, the bridge would force them to pass through one of three 700-meter-wide openings. Large ships require more than three kilometers (1.9 miles) to come to a stop, which leads Siegert to warn of traffic jams and possible collisions. "Single-hulled oil tankers from Russia pass through here every day," he says. "An accident would have incalculable consequences."
Oceanographers voice even greater concerns. The Baltic Sea is dependent on the influx of oxygen-rich, deep-sea waters from the North Sea, serving as a vital lung to support life in the inland sea. If this influx subsides, the fauna living in the Baltic could sink into a black, foul-smelling mud.
Bridge pylons could mix the incoming North Sea water with oxygen-deficient surface water. This would deprive deep currents of their dynamics, and they would lose their ability to carry sufficient oxygen to eastern portions of the Baltic Sea. The Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research in Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea coast has already demonstrated this effect, using data from the existing StorebÃ¦lt Bridge. Oceanographer Hans Burchard warns: "A second bridge in this strait would massively amplify the mixing effect."
'An Urgent Need for Research'
Burchard believes there is an "urgent need for research." The Danes, for their part, are taking the critics' warnings seriously. To allay environmental concerns, the government-owned firm charged with the construction, Femern Baelt A/S, is investing large amounts of money in environmental studies. A great deal is at stake for Copenhagen, which sees the crossing as an important stepping stone in the direction of central Europe.
Danish Transportation Minister Lars Barfoed hopes that "a mental bridge" will develop in parallel to the physical one, and sees the bridge construction as a "catalyst for a growth region." The Danes are optimistic, based on their experiences with the &OUML;resund and StorebÃ¦lt crossings. In both cases, bridge operators noted a rapid rise in traffic after the bridges were opened.
But is the Fehmarn Belt project even comparable? The Oresund Bridge links two major cities, Copenhagen and Malmö, forming a single metropolitan area. The Fehmarn Belt Bridge, on the other hand, would connect two sparsely populated islands in the Baltic Sea.
The Danes expect 7,700 vehicles a day to cross the bridge at first, and 10,300 within five years. The Danish funding model is based on this rapid "jump in traffic," but German experts are skeptical about the numbers. Karlheinz Rössler of Munich consulting firm Vieregg-Rössler believes that the forecasts and the projected toll revenues are "heavily exaggerated."
Rössler recently told the Transportation Committee in the Bundestag that, according to his predictions, only 5,100 motor vehicles and 44 trains would cross the bridge in the initial phase. According to the transportation expert, this would mean that the planned highway and double-track rail line would be operating at only 10 percent of capacity. "In Germany, we don't even build a bypass road for that kind of traffic volume," says Bettina Hagedorn, an SPD member of the Bundestag.
Given these concerns, the German government's hesitation to expand the interior connection comes as no surprise. Currently, a high-speed rail line isn't even planned for the route. The double-track expansion of the rail line between the northern city of Lübeck and Puttgarden has been postponed until 2025. Trains currently travel at low speeds through the Baltic Sea beach resorts of Timmendorfer Strand, Scharbeutz and Sierksdorf, prompting critics to deride the project as "an extended commuter rail connection" to Copenhagen. There is no sign of the much-publicized "Magistrale for Europe" project, which foresees the creation of a high-speed rail network across Europe.
The German Federal Audit Office recently weighed in, criticizing the project for contributing to "substantial uncertainty for future federal budgets" and noting that the costs have been greatly underestimated. According to the agency, the projected €840 million ($1.17 billion) in road and rail construction costs to the German government are likely to more than double, to €1.7 billion. The bridge itself could end up costing more than €8 billion.
Is the treaty nothing but a concession to Denmark? It is impossible that such a mega-project could be promoted purely for reasons of "diplomatic politeness," says conservationist Siegert. To address this issue NABU, the German branch of Friends of the Earth, and other organizations recently filed two complaints with the European Commission. They hope to use legal means to stop the project.
Jürgen Boos of the Action Alliance Against a Fixed Fehmarn Belt Crossing claims that Germany didn't conduct the required European Union-wide bidding process, but instead made sure that the contract would go directly to Femern Baelt A/S. This approach, says Boos, is only allowable if the federal government assumes a portion of the liability. "So far, the government expects the construction to proceed without any significant risks to Germany. This could eventually prove to be a fatal mistake."
Despite all the opposition and inconsistencies, Germany's grand coalition government—which sees Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sharing power with its junior partner, the SPD—will likely rubber-stamp the project. There could be a few renegades, though. Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, for example, summed up his thoughts on the Fehmarn Belt bridge at a 2008 campaign appearance in the Schleswig-Holstein city of Oldenburg:
"A crazy idea."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.