One of the more controversial topics in the modern world is global warming. Every year we hear how it seems that the northern ice sheets cover less and less area than years before, thanks to subtle warming of the global climate due to an insulating blanket of CO2 and other gasses produced by human activity. The dangers of a steadily warming world are slowly dawning on both the scientific community and the public at large, as more worrying reports about potential harm come to light. Many still have their heads buried in the proverbial sand, but before long the harsh realities of a warming world will be too much for even the staunchest denier to ignore.
In the middle of the last century, however, the concept of global warming was far from everyone’s mind. In fact, for Soviet scientists the current state of affairs would not go far enough. They envisioned not trying to curb the melting of the ice a the North Pole, but rather engineering deliberate ways to encourage it. To do this, they called for nothing less than reworking the entire climatological system of the planet by building a gigantic dam across the Bering Strait.
Crops in Siberia and grass in the Sahara
Russia is a famously cold place. her brutal winters foiled invasion attempts by both Napoleon and the Nazis. While the quirks of Russia’s climate makes it ideal for fending off invaders, the brutal cold in areas such as Siberia make accessing the country’s rich natural resources difficult if not impossible. Large Swaths of the land are basically useless for agriculture because they are covered in a year round layer of frozen ground called permafrost.
This was not always the case. About 5000 years ago, Siberia was warmer, and some parts of now former Soviet states in middle Asia were tropical climates. Humans in the region successfully practiced agriculture across wide swaths of what would become the Soviet Union, with less fear of frost and drought than their modern counterparts. Soviet Climatologists believed it might be possible to return to what they saw as more favorable climatic days, by reworking the flow of ocean currents to the Arctic.
The key current Soviet scientists looked into was the Gulf Stream, which brings warm waters from the equator far north. the warm waters flow north, carrying their heat with them, and eventually sink beneath the lighter arctic waters due to higher salinity. This system gives Northern Europe its relatively warm climate.
The Soviets envisioned a way to drive this current further north, bringing the warm water from the equator to the roof of the world. To do this would significantly increase temperatures in northern latitudes. Siberia would thaw for the first time in centuries, opening up new frontiers for human exploitation. Polar ice sheets would recede, revealing more opportunities to exploit fossil fuels deep under northern oceans (something happening on a less grand scale today.)
Not only would northern areas be effected, but the climate of the entire world would shift. Global ocean temperatures would increase, as would the rates of evaporation. More rain would fall on the continents, including places like the Sahara that get little rain during the year. They predicated that grass would sprout on the Sahara for the first time in more than 10,000 years.
Dam the Bering Strait!
These vast changes would be achieved by an appropriately massive engineering project. The centerpiece of the project would be the before mentioned dam across the Bering Strait, a 55 mile long behemoth of a structure. The dam would be tethered to a depth of about 200 feet. It would block the cold waters of the arctic from seeping into the northern Pacific, allowing warmer Pacific currents to creep north, while a massive atomic powered pumping station would pump warm pacific water north creating what would amount to an artificial version of the Gulf Stream.
The dam would be built of 250m sections of pre-stressed ferro-concrete floated into position on pontoons. The innards of the dam–power stations, floodgates, and the like–would be anchored to the ocean bottom by pilings or drilling, depending on conditions on the ocean floor in the local area. A five mile causeway connecting Alaska to Russia would also be built over the dam. Constructing such a massive building would require not only the cooperation of the US and the Soviet Union, but all of their allies as well. It would have truly been a global effort.
Doable, but not practical
While there was evidently enthusiasm among Soviet climatologists, their American counterparts were less than ecstatic. They had no doubt that the dam could be built, but the costs of the project would be astronomical. Many doubted that the Soviets were even serious about the project, believing they were using the project as a form of propaganda.
There lay one of the fundamental problems with the dam project. It was a political nonstarter. Building such a mammoth structure would require not only the two superpowers working together, a dicey proposition at best, but the cooperation of other powers as well. They would all have to commit vast amounts of resources to a plan that worked on paper but had no other way of being tested outside of the hypothetical until it was completed. It was not clear just how the rest of the world was supposed to benefit from the vast project, other than the vague promises of warmer climates, more rain, and more access to hydroelectric power from higher water flow due to more rain. Russia would see the most immediate benefit, and the US was not likely to sign up to give its biggest rival access to more arable land and fossil fuels.
Politics aside, even with the less sophisticated climatological knowledge of the day, most scientists grasped that tweaking the vast system that effected everyone on earth was probably a bad idea. There are too many variables to account for, and too many things that could go wrong. Current thought would say that the consequences would would have been catastrophic, resulting in massive sea level rise and runaway global warming as greenhouse gasses locked in the permafrost vented into the atmosphere. Basically, the project could have brought about what today is regarded as the worst case scenario of a world with a changing climate.
There is some irony there. The Cold War was characterized by weapons that could destroy civilization as we know it, and yet a project meant to better the lot of many people in the world and requiring the cooperation of deadly rivals would have almost certainly ended the world as we know it. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions.
Borisov, P.M. “Can we Control the Arctic Climate?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. March 1969. Vol. 25. No.3 pg 43-48.
“Ocean Dams Would Thaw North.” Popular Mechanics. June 1956. pg 135