In 2000, the American Society of Civil Engineers took on the monumental task of naming its 10 “Monuments of the Millennium” to recognize the top feats of engineering completed during the 20th century. Selected projects included the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway System. Granted, since the list was compiled, Boston’s Big Dig highway project came to a close and the massive Hangzhou and Jiaozhou bridges were constructed in China. These modern marvels offer the best engineering has to offer, standing in sharp contrast to some megaprojects proposed by engineers and scientists which, at best, appear to defy our current technical understanding and, at worst, seem to defy logic. Here are five strange engineering proposals.
5. Bering Strait Crossing
The last time Siberia and Alaska were physically connected by way of a land bridge was before notions of “Siberia,” “Alaska,” or “Earth” as we know it existed — during the last ice age, which started more than 110,000 years ago and ended approximately 12,000 years ago. Now the possibility of connecting these landmasses again — by way of either a tunnel or bridge across the Bering Strait between the Arctic and Pacific Oceans — is being explored. The roughly 60-mile tunnel would cost billions of dollars, part of a larger multi-modal project with a cool $65 billion price tag. Proponents say linking the two continents would pay for itself, opening up desolate areas of Russia rich in natural resources. Naysayers question how many people would actually use the structure; after all, Alaskan coastal settlements are more than 600 miles from a main road and, on the Russian side, the nearest road of any kind is more than 930 miles away — near Magadan, a city otherwise known for its brutal Soviet-era work camps in the extensive Gulag prison system. To put this in perspective, disperse 1 million people — the population of Rhode Island — in a land area the size of the continental United States. Project backers also need to quell investors’ fears about the feasibility of building a structure where permafrost exists year-round and temperatures in some communities have dipped well below the average of negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Space Billboards
Seemingly everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded by advertising — on TV, the radio, the Internet, at the gas pump, and via telemarketing calls and junk mail. It could be worse. Imagine being outside on a quiet, starlit night, as you look up into space and see not the moon, but a billboard blocking the moon. Space billboards are not just the makings of a fantasy novel; in fact, the proposed initiative to send a mile-wide Mylar billboard into low orbit so we mortals can see it from the ground made its way to the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress. In 1993, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey introduced a bill to ban all ads in space after a pioneer in the space-marketing industry proposed selling these high-flying ads to high-flier companies at $15 million to $30 million a pop. Citing concerns ranging from preserving the sanctity and wonder of the skies, to light pollution, “space junk” and vision obstruction, the bill was passed and has been enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration since 2005. Astronomer Carl Sagan called the project “an abomination … an attack on science” and a “misuse of engineering talent.” But the billboards do have their advocates who assert that the market should decide whether Pepsi, Nike and the like have the right to utilize this vast, currently blank canvas. So maybe, someday, we will truly wish upon a star of a different kind … Jamie Lee Curtis pitching Activia or Michael Jordan endorsing the merits of Hanes.
Think of the world’s most famous dams, and several come immediately to mind, from the Hoover Dam in the United States to Three Gorges Dam in China. But these massive structures would have paled in comparison to a dam proposed almost 100 years ago. In the 1920s, a German architect, Herman Sörgel, proposed a 21-mile-long dam that would have joined Europe and Asia at the Strait of Gibraltar. Sörgel hoped to cut off water from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, allowing the sea to dry up and creating more than 230,000 square miles of “useable” land. An intriguing project deserves an intriguing creator, and Sörgel doesn’t disappoint. A social Darwinist and proponent of colonialism, according to Cabinet Magazine, he once wrote about dotting the dammed-up sea with power plants, which would allow Africa to become a “territory actually useful to Europe.” Fittingly enough, this idea based on the belief that Africa was devoid of culture and history gained loyal followers in the Weimar Republic. But with Sörgel’s death in the 1950s, Atlantropa appears to have died, too, as the Institute named after the project dissolved by the next decade. In more recent times, American architect Eugene Tsui has proposed connecting Spain and Morocco by way of a floating bridge, boasting 24 lanes of roadway and an estimated 60 million visitors annually.
2. Launching Nuclear Waste into Space
“NIMBY,” or “Not In My Back Yard,” may in more modern parlance be “Not On My Planet,” given proposals to launch our high-level nuclear waste into space. It would be a monumental task, as there is some 45,000 tons of waste to dispose of, resulting from more than six decades of nuclear weapons programs and civilian power plants. Proponents claim that such disposal is safer than other alternatives or existing methods such as burying it underground. Fans of waste in space also claim this will open the door for more “widespread use of space.” Critics point out that it’s been hard enough for our top engineers to keep satellites with a price tag of more that $400 million from crashing into the sea, let alone safely launching hazardous materials into the sky. Imagine if the capsules being launched didn’t actually make it to their destination. The earth could be blanketed in radioactive ash. Aside from the obvious benefit of such a proposal — the waste would sure be a long way from our backyards — the intergovernmental Nuclear Energy Agency has had little good to say about the idea, citing concerns over its technical complexity and cost. Other finalists for the dubious distinction of being considered as storage sites for our hazardous nuclear waste include the ocean floor and glaciers in Antarctica.
1. Using Mirrors and Lenses to Solve Climate Change
In 2011, 60 prominent scientists from around the globe gathered to search for solutions to climate change. In addition to suggestions such as spraying seawater on clouds to reflect light, painting streets and roofs white and producing lighter-colored crops to reflect the sun’s rays, it was suggested that a giant mirror be sent into orbit to cool Earth. This idea of using a huge reflective shield to disperse sunlight isn’t new; it’s been around since at least the 1980s, according to MIT. The concept may have staying power, but it also has plenty of critics. For one, scientists have estimated a “sunshade” as big as 1,200 miles in diameter could cost as much as $10 trillion. Even if funding materializes, there are other challenges. For starters, how do we transport the object to that critical destination almost 1 million miles into space where the Earth’s and sun’s gravity is balanced, so it stays in place? It’s been suggested we could use the moon’s resources, including lunar rock, to make the mirror and assemble it on the moon’s surface, where it would be launched to its final destination. Given there are no firm plans to return to the moon any time soon, and the difficulty of putting together even minor parts at the International Space Station, this idea doesn’t seem to be flying high anytime soon. And some researchers actually speculate it could make climate change worse. A more workable proposal might be to send trillions of tiny lenses into space to achieve the same effect, but once again, it would be costly, and it could makes things worse.