Today, we rewrite geography. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Herman Sörgel, born in 1885, came from a
German family of architects. He too went on to become an architect.
Art and architecture were then in the midst of a revolution:
German expressionism, the art and crafts
movement, Bauhaus ... Sörgel was caught up in them all and they
carried him well beyond architecture.
By 1933 he'd organized trade schools and was serving as the head
of trade teaching in Bavaria. Then Hitler came to power: The arts
that Sörgel had been writing about were condemned. And Sörgel's
most ambitious project did not fare well, either. He wanted to alter
Earth's physical geography -- to extend Europe into Africa. His
problems with Hitler had less to do with the seeming madness of his
technical plans, than with Hitler's ambitions. Hitler looked east
toward Asia more that south into Africa.
But, geopolitics aside, let's look at Sörgel's idea: He wanted to
reduce the size of the Mediterranean, to irrigate much of North Africa,
and to create land links to Africa. He would dam the Bosporus to
block off the Black Sea to the east. On the west, he wanted to build
a huge semicircular earth gravity dam -- arcing out into the Atlantic
at Gibraltar. He would also redirect African rivers to create vast
freshwater inland seas in northern Africa.
Once the Mediterranean was isolated, evaporation would cause it to drop
several feet per year. That would eventually expose more than a hundred
thousand square miles of new land. Most of the Adriatic Sea would vanish,
and an expanded Sicily would link to Italy and almost touch Tunisia.
Finally, a third dam would be built linking Sicily to Tunisia and splitting
the shrunken Mediterranean in two. The eastern side would come to rest
330 feet below sea level, the western side 660 feet. Those three huge dams
would be used to generate hydroelectric power and to provide highway links
Descriptions of the project vary since it's still alive and undergoing
modifications even today. Sörgel had formed an Atlantropa Institute which
the NAZIs marginalized. But it survived the war and then sought UNESCO
support. As the idea evolved and as others revived it, it appears both
in new proposals and in science fiction. Sörgel's plan and the Gibraltar
Dam are part of Gene Roddenberry's book Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Well, where does proposed technology end and science fiction begin? I'm not
New technology is like that. The New York subway system seemed implausible
in the late 19th century and it brought terrible disruption to lower Manhattan
in the early 20th. Today, the city is unimaginable without it. So what
about a terraformed Mediterranean? Well, I suspect -- I fear -- that Earth
is headed for far greater changes in the next century. But ones quite
different from Sörgel's half mad, half visionary, plan.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A great deal about Sörgel's so-called Atlantropa plan
and subsequent variations of it can be found online. Also a
current student and advocate of the idea, Richard B. Cathcart,
has published a great deal both online and in print. See, e.g.:
R. B. Cathcart, Macroengineering Transformations of the Mediterranean
Sea and Africa. World Futures, Vol. 19, No.1, 1983, pp. 111-121.
R. B. Cathcart, What if We Lowered the Mediterranean Sea?
Speculations in Science and Technology, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1985. pp. 7-15.
The 1950 Modern Mechanix ran
an article about Sörgel's plan.
Thanks to Jim Bell of KUHF-FM, for calling my attention to Sörgel's plan.
The Mediterranean Sea (Both images courtesy of Google Earth). One dam would be
placed at the Strait of Gibraltar in the upper left, one across the
Bosporus in the lower right. The third dam -- see below:
Notice the shallow part of the sea just below the left end of Sicily (big island
near the center.) The third dam and road link would extend from that exposed land to
Tunisia in the lower left. It would divide the Mediterranean into two pieces -- the
higher level on the Gibraltar side, the lower on the Bosporus side.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.