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Why One Man Devoted His Life To Draining The Mediterranean Sea

Where would we be if “Atlantropa” came to fruition?

Artist rendering of Atlantropa (via Wikipedia)

It may sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but one man crafted a very real plan to drain the Mediterranean Sea, effectively merging Europe and Africa into one supercontinent. As far-fetched as this idea may sound, Herman Sörgel dedicated his life to it.

In 1929, while most of Europe was still reeling from World War I, Sörgel, then a German architect, wrote a book detailing his idea for the massive project called The Panropa Project, Lowering the Mediterranean, Irrigating the Sahara. Three years later, when that didn’t seem to catch on, Sörgel repackaged the idea in another book called Atlantropa, which is still the work he’s best remembered for today.

Herman Sörgel (via Wikipedia)

In Atlantropa, Sörgel describes closing off the Strait of Gibraltar and setting up two other enormous dams that would make modern China’s Three Gorges Dam look puny in comparison. By lowering sea levels to make room for farmland and gathering hydroelectricity from the dams, Sörgel claimed the project would provide jobs and boost prosperity within the Euro-African region for decades.

Sörgel’s plan may sound crazy, but his aim was far from it. According to Atlas Obscura, he saw Atlantropa as a solution for the deep depression Europe found itself struggling to crawl out of following the First World War. Requiring intercontinental cooperation and millions of workers, Sörgel (who was a diehard pacifist) saw the project as an opportunity to rebuild frayed relations. Amidst unemployment, poverty, and the building tensions that plagued European nations, you could argue that creative solutions such as Sörgel’s were more desperately optimistic than outrageous.

Despite support from fellow Germans, Atlantropa never got past the daydreaming stage. By the time the Nazis took over Germany, they weren’t interested in dams or community building; they were interested in expanding territory the old-fashioned way by conquering other countries and absorbing them into their fold. It didn’t help either that the rise of nuclear power quickly overshadowed hydroelectricity’s capabilities.

Alas, Atlantropa lives on in the fictional works of Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry. But if Star Trek’s ability to influence scientific innovation is any indication, fiction has a lot more power than we’d like to think. Who knows? Maybe the next off-the-wall idea will be the one to save us all.

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