The Bering Strait Tunnel

This post doesn’t exactly fall into the Gadgets and Tech category, but it’s not what I would consider “Random” either. Maybe I need to create a new category for architecture and design-related posts…

While I ponder that thought, here’s some interesting news. The Bering Strait Bridge/Tunnel, a project that’s been on and off for over a century (a bridge was first proposed way back in 1892), might actually get built. The Kremlin recently gave the green light to build a road and rail tunnel which would link the Asian and North American continents for the first time in over 7,000 years (the last time the continents were linked was via the land mass Beringia, a land bridge between the two continents during the last ice age). At two times the length of the Channel Tunnel (aka Chunnel), the 64 mile Bering Strait Tunnel would become the world’s longest.

The Bering Strait (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I first heard about a link between the two continents in 2003 on a Discovery Channel show called Extreme Engineering. The episode, titled “Bridging the Bering Strait,” discussed the plans and possibility of building an
80km long bridge from Alaska to Siberia. This triple-decker bridge would allow for vehicular traffic up top (during the summer only), high-speed rail in the middle, and pipelines carrying oil, gas, and electricity on the bottom. Although the bridge would undoubtedly attract many tourists wanting to get a view of the arctic, it would actually be quite troublesome. Although the Bering Strait doesn’t typically have icebergs, it does have 6ft ice floes, producing 44,000 kN of force on the supports. That’s the equivalent weight of over 3,000 Toyota Camrys! Just inside the Arctic Circle, the bridge would also need to survive the long dark winters, with temperatures as low as -50°C (-58°F), making bridge maintenance only possible during the summer months. Although a bridge would be a massive achievement (and the water is only 180ft at the deepest point), it seems that a tunnel is the better option for the Bering Strait. [Be sure to check out the interactive tour of the proposed bridge as Discovery.com]


The proposed tunnel, which is to be called the TKM-World Link or ICL-World Link, is supposed to open supply lines from Russia to the US and Canada. High on this list of supplies are oil, natural gas, fiber optic cables (for internet and communications), and even electricity. It is believed that this tunnel could cut the shipping costs of moving freight around the world (when compared to container ships). I’m not going to comment (too much) on the economic (or political) implications of such a supply line, since I’m not all that knowledgeable about the topic. For Russia, it’s a no-brainer, as they’d have a new market for their products, increasing the demand (and most likely price, and thus profits). For the US and Canada, the results could be mixed. Although there would now be a new supply of resources coming in, would the infrastructure costs (that all three countries would need to invest in) justify it? If, even after the added costs, these resources were cheaper than ones we import from other countries, the Middle East in particular, then it could be worth it. Otherwise, I don’t see much of an advantage for the US and Canada. As for passenger travel through the tunnel, I really don’t see a need to travel from Alaska to Siberia. Even if someone did need to travel between the two locations, flying would most likely be cheaper (based on the high costs of rail travel in the US). On the other hand, it would be pretty cool that you could take a train from London all the way to New York.

Source: Inhabitat.com

Building the tunnel structure itslef would take 15 years (at least), and would cost over $10 billion. Adding the necessary infrastructure to the tunnel to actually make it useful (high speed rail, roads, pipelines, electricity, etc.) could bring the total cost north of $60 billion (the Russian government estimates $100 billion [that’s five times the cost of the Chunnel]). But even if the tunnel is completed, there is no infrastructure on either side of the strait for hundreds of miles. On the Russian side, work has already begun on the additional 2,000 miles railroads, highways, and pipelines that would need to be created, but at least 1,700 miles more of existing infrastructure would need to be upgraded as well. The Russians estimate most of the work to be completed in 2013 (which probably won’t happen). On the Alaskan side, at least 500 miles of infrastructure would need to be created, but would also end up connecting Nome to the rest of the continent. This additional infrastructure on the US side could cost as much as $3 billion for just a paved highway, which the Alaskan government has yet to approve. Experts say that the tunnel could end up carrying 3% of the world’s freight, generating $7 billion of profit per year. Although the recipients of this profit aren’t directly identified, it would most likely be the consortium of private companies working with the Russian government.

I love reading about these types of engineering challenges, and I would be happy to see it built, if just for the engineering achievements alone. But the question is, is it worth it? For the US and Canada, probably not , but I still want it build.

Sources: Engineering the Impossible, Wikipedia, Inhabitat, and Discovery.com

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