As you may have seen from the news, Europe is having a bit of a problem with its energy levels right now.
Not the kind where the sun’s out and you’ve just opened this bottle of wine and hey, what a perfect time for a nap (I firmly believe the Spanish siesta should immediately be formally adopted by every country of the world).
Unfortunately, it’s the other kind: the soaring prices of gas and electricity triggered by Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. We’re all feeling the pinch here - and while it’s massively accelerating investment in non-fossil-fuel sources of energy (certainly not a bad thing), our utility bills are facing big hikes in the short term.
So it’s a good moment to remember a proposed 20th-Century European engineering project that would have solved the energy crisis for good - if it wasn’t so wildly impractical and horrifyingly inhuman.
Welcome to Atlantropa - the future of Europe that (thankfully) never was.
It’s 1928, and German architect Herman Sörgel has just had a great idea that would solve everything. Working as an architect and journalist in 1914, he was ill-prepared for the horrors of The Great War. It seemed like a total breakdown of everything he believed in: a devastating force that tore through the world and left nothing standing.
It was enough to turn him into a self-avowed pacifist. But he wanted to go one step further: to not just deny the validity of war, but to engineer it out of existence.
In Sörgel’s view, this was an urgent matter. The future as he saw it would be dominated by three superpowers - all wrangling for geopolitical power in a way that was shamefully wasteful and destructive. What was needed was a project so ludicrously ambitious, yet so immeasurably beneficial to all the European powers, that it would at last force them to put aside their differences and cooperate, if they wanted to reap the spectacular rewards on offer.
(And if it was expensive enough - wouldn’t that make it impossible for them to keep throwing all their money into building new armies, navies and air-forces? Wouldn’t it engineer peace?)
This is why Herman Sörgel decided it would be best for everyone if he drained the Mediterranean.
You may remember the story of the ancient Zanclean Megaflood that we covered in March. Sörgel’s concept was to trigger the same thing in slow reverse, cutting one sea off from the other and letting the Mediterranean slowly evaporate. His project would take hundreds of years to complete (thereby hopefully shepherding humanity into a gentler, more rational age that had no need for violence).
Even better, it would pay for itself, giving every investor - specifically, the wealthier countries of Europe - a huge financial return over time, primarily in the form of a near-unlimited source of electrical power - and it would create new land for Europeans to settle on, both within the Mediterranean, on reclaimed coastline totalling 660,000 km² (by comparison, Spain is around 500,000 km²), and across huge tracts of land in the, erm, ‘unpopulated’ continent of Africa.
(Note the inverted commas there. You might be starting to see why this project idea is so questionable.)
Here’s how it would work.
First and foremost, a truly colossal hydroelectric dam would be built across the Strait of Gibraltar, preventing the Atlantic from replenishing the almost entirely land-locked Mediterranean, and providing Europe (the richer parts of it anyway) with most of its electricity.
This would trigger a human-engineered repeat of the Messinian Salinity Crisis, the geological event that led to the almost complete desiccation of the Mediterranean - and ended with that jawdroppingly huge flood.
After a couple of hundred years of drying-out, the sea on the Mediterranean side of the Gibraltar dam would be around 100 metres lower than on the Atlantic side, creating a dependable, renewable source of potential energy that could be turbined into electricity.
As if all this wasn’t ambitious enough, the next step would be building four other dams:
- Across the Dardanelles (modern-day Turkey) to hold back the Black Sea
- Between Sicily and Tunisia (also providing a handy roadway from Europe to Africa), allowing the deeper-floored eastern Mediterranean to be lowered an additional 100 metres
- At an extension to the Suez Canal, creating sea-lock access to the Red Sea
- On the Congo River, below its Kwah River tributary, to refill the vast basin of land around Lake Chad, thus creating enough fresh water to irrigate much of the Sahara (!) and lay down a shipping lane into the African interior.
The combined result of this was “Atlantropa” - a theoretically peaceful, technology-led way to meet Europe’s needs, to allow Europeans to expand into new lands, and forge a united front against the threat of the Americans in the west and Asia to the east.
It’s hard to know where to even start with all this - so let's head to the Strait of Gibraltar.
For engineering reasons now lost to us, Sörgel decided the dam should be built not at the narrowest part of the Strait, but 30 km further inside the Mediterranean, massively increasing the size of the project.
Once its foundations were built (2.5km wide, 300m deep) and once its entire length was laid out across the seaway, a 400-metre-high tower would be erected - all of this requiring … well, more concrete than existed in the world at that time, according to recent calculations.
The dam wall would have to be high enough to prevent Atlantic gales from pounding water over the top, and deep enough to reach to the seabed (anything from 300 to 900 metres deep, depending on the location). And it would have to stretch for at least 25 kilometres. Probably more!
By contrast, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world today, the Three Gorges Dam in China, is 2.3km long, 185 metres from base to top, and took 17 years to build with modern construction technology. Atlantropa’s Gibraltar dam would be on another scale entirely, using the technology of a century ago. It wouldn’t just be a mammoth undertaking: it would require a collective engineering effort never before seen in human history.
(And it’d still only be the first dam of five.)
The safety issues are not trivial. What would happen if the dam breached? What if that happened when all those newly-reclaimed lowlands had been populated?
Yeah. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But this is far from the worst thing about Atlantropa.
Sörgel saw his project as a way to remove the need for geopolitical conflict, and described himself as a pacifist. But beyond his romanticism and idealism, he clearly held a number of views that would be abhorrent today.
For example, he referred to Europe as “people without space,” while Africa was “space without people.” Along this line of thinking, Africa was a vast, unspoilt playground for the major European powers - and Atlantropa would be the triumphant finale of the 19th-Century ‘Scramble for Africa’ that inflicted all manner of colonial injustices upon the people already living there.
Perhaps none of this would have directly occurred to him, and he’d have been shocked to see his dreams of peace twisted in such a way. But considering that the population of the Chad Basin today is 30 million souls, the creation of a dam there would at the very least have created one of the biggest refugee crises in world history.
Yet however misguided Sörgel’s larger plan was, it was bang on the money when it came to generating electricity.
Last year, the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, in the stretch of sea separating Scotland from the islands of Orkney, started pumping out enough energy to power 2,000 homes and fuel a nearby electrolyser that creates ‘green’ hydrogen, a sustainable way of replacing natural gas. While it’ll no doubt be the first of many, it’s still early days - but in theory, the technology is now there. So what would be possible with an array of such turbines on the floor of the Gibraltar Strait, capturing the power of the Atlantic as it replenishes the Mediterranean every day?
Atlantropa was a complete bust, and the modern world can be very grateful for that. But maybe a new version, scaled down to be practical, using the benefits of modern technology and providing electricity for everyone, would turn Sörgel’s flawed utopia into something that deserves a place in humanity’s future. It’s certainly worth thinking about.
Next year Wheel and Anchor will be visiting the Rock of Gibraltar, overlooking the Strait where the great Atlantropa dam would have been built, as part of our multi-stage Iberian Sojourn.