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No. 2313:

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 between continents.

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 really certain.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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.

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: 

Sicily and Tunisia
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.