Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Think big, with these massive macro-engineering projects

A man, a plan, the Batman, banter, the can-can, a cannoli, Panama! (Photo: MrPanyGoff/Wikipedia)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Macro-engineering

What it’s about: Thinking big. While all engineering projects are, in their own way, a way of remaking the world, macro-engineering attempts to remake a pretty sizable chunk of it. There are projects, real and theoretical, which are hundreds of miles in scope and could (or have) changed entire countries. Wikipedia has a page defining and describing the concept, but for Wormhole purposes, we’ll take a look at the category page, which lists existing and potential projects around the world.


Strangest fact: Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, but that just isn’t enough for some people. Most existing macro-engineering projects are canals, with Panama and Suez only the most famous. A system of canals links the North and Black Seas, the centerpiece of which is the Danube-Black Sea Canal in Romania, built by forced labor in the Communist era. Turkey is currently building Kanal İstanbul, creating a second waterway bisecting the city and leaving an island between the Kanal and the Bosphorous that is part of neither Europe nor Asia.

Some historians also believe Zenobia, who ruled the Palmyrene Empire (stretching from northern Egypt to eastern Turkey) in the third century, had canals built from the Orontes River to Palmyra—ruins can still be seen in modern-day Lebanon.


Biggest controversy: Not all of these projects are well-thought-out. The Qattara Depression Project is one of several proposed schemes to bring water to the Sahara Desert. The Qattara Depression is a 7,500-square-mile region of Egyptian desert that’s below sea level. As far back as 1912, proposals have been floated to connect the region to the Mediterranean and use the resulting water flow for hydroelectric power. The CIA recommended the proposal to President Eisenhower in 1957, saying it would “materially alter the climate in adjacent areas.”

But far from irrigating the desert, modern scientists believe most of the water would evaporate in the dry, hot climate, leaving behind a salt pan and most likely poisoning groundwater. In case that isn’t worrying enough, one proposal even suggested that, as digging would be prohibitively labor-intensive, the canal could be dug with 213 separate nuclear explosions. Shockingly, the Egyptian government declined to participate.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The crazily ambitious German plan to dam the entire Mediterranean Sea never came to fruition. Herman Sörgel was an architect who, in 1920, proposed a hydroelectric dam spanning the entire Strait Of Gibraltar. The project, which he named Atlantropa, would result in vast amounts of hydroelectric power to be shared across Europe and Northern Africa, although a side effect would be lowering the sea by more than 600 feet. Sörgel saw this as a positive as well, as the shallowest parts of the sea would become dry land. (We imagine anyone with beachfront property was less enthusiastic.) A much-larger Sicily would connect to the mainland in the north, and be close enough to the new Tunisian coast to build a bridge (or, as Sörgel would have it, another dam). The northern half of the Adriatic would be filled in; Corsica and Sardinia would merge into one large island, and what was then Palestine would increase in size by 50 percent.

Image: lttiz/Wikipedia

Sörgel optimistically saw the new land and massive source of electricity as a boon to both European-wide peace and European-African relations. He envisioned a system in which belligerent nations would be punished by losing their access to electricity. While Sörgel’s ideas were initially popular, people lost interest in the idea after a few years, although he continued to promote Atlantropa throughout his life. There was renewed interest in Nazi Germany, as Sörgel began to promote Atlantropa as a peaceful alternative to Lebensraum, Hitler’s plan to kill or enslave the population of Eastern Europe and resettle the lands with German Aryans. Der Führer himself, however, called Atlantropa, “not inconsistent with Nazi ideology,” and The Man In The High Castle includes a scenario in which the Nazis drain the Mediterranean entirely.

Graphic: J JMesserly/Wikipedia

Thing we were happiest to learn: The crazily ambitious German plan to power all of Europe with Saharan solar power could still happen. Desertec has been in the planning stage since 2003, and has drawn comparisons to Atlantropa, as it’s also a large-scale plan to solve Europe’s energy needs, with significant help from Africa. This time the plan is to build massive solar arrays in the Sahara Desert, and use high-voltage direct current to transmit the bulk of the power generated to Europe. Unlike Atlantropa, the impact would be minimal, as the Sahara is largely uninhabited, and the map wouldn’t be redrawn in any way. And unlike Atlantropa, the project is starting to take form, as numerous Saharan nations are investing heavily in solar, and Europe has begun building a “supergrid,” which is already connecting European countries across bodies of water and could next be expanded across the Mediterranean.

Also noteworthy: China has different plans for its biggest desert. Like the Sahara, the Gobi is gradually expanding, eating up 1,400 square miles of grassland a year. In response, the Chinese government embarked on the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, or the Great Green Wall, a 2,800-mile strip of newly planted forest designed to block the desert’s advance. China’s playing a long game—the project began in 1978 and is expected to be completed in 2050. But the project is already the largest artificial forest in the world and has a secondary benefit of absorbing a significant chunk of China’s carbon emissions. The project is not without problems—there are worries that the trees will soak up enough groundwater to further dry out the region, and that monoculture plantations are bad for the soil and as bird habitats.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: If you’d rather look at human achievement on a smaller scale, there’s also a category for garden-variety engineering projects, broad enough to include not only things like Hoover Dam and the Big Dig, but also the Human Genome Project and the Apollo program.

Further down the Wormhole: Several macro projects have been built in the United States, especially the state where gambling and prostitution are legal: Nevada. The Silver State is also home to everyone’s favorite area, Area 51. Area 51 is central to UFOlogy, a genre of conspiracy theory that came into its own with the story of Barney and Betty Hill, a couple of unassuming New Englanders who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in 1961. We’ll check out their story next week. The truth is out there!


Share This Story