originally published September 14, 2013
I am, though most don’t know this about me, an avid spectator of macro-engineering. I love hearing about grand schemes to transform the most fundamental geography of our world, despite the unwavering mental image of some bald super-villain plotting the entire process from his underground volcanic island lair. This is the near-pinnacle of human ambition, surpassed only by the ingenuity of encasing a slab of creamy peanut butter inside a chocolaty cup.
Macro-engineering is what poked a seam through the middle of Panama, enabling ships to squeak through a shortcut from ocean to ocean. It’s what built a giant wall to take advantage of the fact that Mongol hordes had apparently not yet discovered the ladder. It’s what formulated a massive space station, capable of turning Alderaan into a gazillion dusty cake sprinkles with one quick blast.
It’s also what could have altered our maps and globes in strange and unthinkable ways, even by reducing the total number of continents. Welcome, my friends, to a land called Atlantropa.
German architect Helmut Sörgel was reading about something called the Messinian salinity crisis, which proposes that the large salt beds hugging the edges of the Mediterranean suggest that the sea level dipped significantly about 5 or 6 million years ago. Helmut came up with the idea of slapping a dam across the Gibraltar Strait, along with a quartet of other dams, in order to fuse Europe and Africa into a single continent called Atlantropa. Not only could this project brew up a heap of electricity, but an entire laundry list of humankind’s concerns could be overcome.
First, it would be a peaceful use of technology. Also, it could bring together a Europe that was still recovering from the Great War; this was the mid 1920’s and Germany in particular was eager to rebuild a little love between themselves and their former enemies. Also, Europe could finish the job of conquering Africa, dropping convenient white governments all over the place and turning Atlantropa into a massive Caucasian economic block.
Okay, so the project was a tetch racist in addition to being physically unfeasible and wholly detrimental to all those coastal resorts that would be pushed inland as the sea recedes. Fortunately, Atlantropa is dead.
Though it was beta-tested by Moses some time ago, the concept of a Red Sea Dam has never been given the chance to be brought to fruition. As you know, the Red Sea is that sliver of water that separates Saudi Arabia and Yemen from Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea. At its southern end is the Bab-al-Mandab Strait, which is only eighteen miles across. The chefs of this wacky concept stew, which include Roelof Dirk Schuiling, Viorel Badescu and three other people who have never been in my kitchen, claim that the hydroelectric potential of such a dam could generate as much as 50 gigawatts, or enough to power 41.32 DeLorean time machines.
The Red Sea is the primary shipping conduit for all those nations, except for Saudi Arabia who has the Persian Gulf in its eastern armpit and Yemen who also borders the Indian Ocean. Finding support for sealing that route lies somewhere far beyond the impossible. Forget the fact that it would kill off fish, crabs, coral reefs and other sea creatures that would be unable to adjust to the sea’s higher salinity, this entire proposal is bubbling over with batshit ridiculousness.
Yes, that’s a massive lake just to the southwest of Alexandria, Egypt, and no, it doesn’t really exist. But the Qattara Depression Project, were it ever to actually happen, would invite the lake into existence. The Qattara Depression, which is home to a miniscule amount of human life, lies below sea level. This idea had support from geography professors to the CIA, who suggested in 1957 that flooding the depression could bring about peace in the Mideast.
The water could generate electricity, and the salt beds left behind as the hot Saharan sun put its heavy thumb of evaporation down on the Mediterranean-fuelled lake would also be a benefit to locals. The sticking point here is channeling the water all the way south from the Mediterranean. Professor Friedrich Bassler suggested using nuclear bombs to blast the canal. Egypt’s government wasn’t crazy about this concept, and they quietly turned down the entire plan.
Meanwhile on the other side of the continent, people have been proposing to spew massive amounts of water into the Sahara to create a Saharan Sea. English engineer Donald Mackenzie came up with the idea in 1877, believing southern Morocco to be the ideal entry point for the channel. Bring the water in from the Atlantic and flood the Saharan plain, then nudge out a canal to stretch all the way to the Niger River. It’d be the perfect transportation route for a Europe-run satellite continent. No one was really thinking about the benefits to Africans with these schemes.
Like all the others, this idea was scrapped for being completely unrealistic. A lot of the Saharan Desert is actually above sea level, so at best the ‘sea’ would be an uneven distribution of bays and coves, and probably not up to the task of supporting colonial economies. The desert, it seems, was destined to remain a desert.
Here’s one that actually happened. The Pan-American Highway reaches all the way from Deadhorse (along the northern shore of Alaska) to Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern toenail of South America. While most of the Canadian and American roadways involved are not officially labeled as part of the highway, the connection is still there, and it includes Highway 2 which slashes through my little burg of Edmonton.
The one hiccup in the highway is known as the Darién Gap, a 62-mile stretch of non-road-ness between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Colombia. Environmentalists don’t want the road completed, and neither do cattle farmers. Foot-and-mouth disease has been unheard of in North American and Central American cattle since 1954, and allowing sick bovines to meander up the highway would put an end to that streak.
So as proud as we should be of the Pan-American Highway, it’s still an incomplete project – there is still no way to pass from Central to South America by car. But of all these ambitious pipe-dreams, this may be the easiest hurdle to leap. Maybe someday we’ll finish this road.
Or maybe we’ll just invent a flying car.