Civil Engineering is the science and the art of manipulating our environment in the best way possible. It is a simple and natural pursuit; that is why it is appealing.

Engineering is what makes us human. We were once cold, tired nomads who wondered around endlessly in search of food. So we used our brains, and we built shelter so we could relax by the fire. This same ability to solve problems advanced over thousands of years from roads to canals to bridges, dams, and skyscrapers.

There are endless examples of completed civil engineering projects that showcase humans’ ability to solve nearly any problem we are faced with. Atlantropa is among the most ambitious civil engineering projects in human history, but it is relatively unknown, because it was never completed. A German architect, Herman Sorgel, planned the concept in the 1920s, and was of the belief that the project would solve problems of unemployment, overpopulation, and perceived energy shortage that contributed to the turmoil that led to WWII.

The main idea of Atlantropa was to install large dams at each end of the Mediterranean Sea in order to lower the sea elevation by 100-200 meters.

A third major dam would also be constructed between Tunisia and Sicily to allow the sea levels to vary between the eastern and western side of this dam. Lowering the sea level by 100-200 meters would allow approximately 250,000 square miles of additional land to be inhabited, while locks, roads, and railroads would be constructed in conjunction with each dam, to be used as shipping routes. Each of the massive dams would have also been used for hydroelectric power generation. The highlights of the plan are shown in the illustration above. The red areas represent land area that would be reclaimed by lowering the sea elevations.

Diagram of Atlantropa An Ambitious Civil Engineering Project
Diagram of “Atlantropa” – one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects of all time.

Eventually, two additional large dams would also be constructed on the Congo River, allowing massive lakes in Central Africa, which would be used for irrigation and as a moderating influence on the area’s climate. Sorgel and other advocates for Atlantropa saw the project as not only a massive geoengineering project to manipulate the land, moderate the weather, improve transportation, and generate energy; they saw it ultimately as a humanitarian project. After WWI, the rise of Nazism, and WWII, Sorgel had little faith in politics to solve the world’s problems. But with the cooperation, investment, and connectivity that Atlantropa would require, Sorgel believed there would be additional benefits- in economic prosperity, energy independence, diplomacy, and peace.

Atlantropa was never constructed, primarily because of its overly ambitious scale. It was simply too hard. Outside of the engineering and financial challenges, too many political problems would also arise. Who would own the newly created land? Which countries would provide what portion of funding? Who would make planning decisions?

Questions like this are why a large scale project like this may never be realistic, now that the age of empires is (thankfully) over. Still, it is interesting to dream of such projects, and it is good to know that in the event that a monumental feat of engineering is needed, it is likely that humans have the collective brainpower to come up with a solution.

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