Saturday, December 24, 2011

Underground and underwater

I recently encountered two interesting articles about tunnels; railway tunnels to be specific.

The first article described a link between Scotland and Ireland, proposed by the Victorians, a people never afraid of a challenge. This tunnel would probably have been part of a Glasgow to Belfast rail line, as illustrated below.

To anybody familiar with the west coast of Scotland, the tunnel is the easy bit. The option selected for the leg from Tarbert to Glasgow would depend on the engineer’s stomach for more tunnels, long bridges or the almost interminable route round the north end of Loch Fyne (if you think I exaggerate, try driving it).

The second article was about a tunnel from Russia to Alaska, originally proposed in 1905, but now being discussed again, at least by the Russians. Total cost? About $12 billion for the tunnel alone, plus more to connect the tunnels to existing Russian and U.S. rail networks.

Both these articles obviously present considerable scope for alternative history stories, but my thinking followed a different path.

We mostly travel on or above ground, bridges and aircraft being our preferred mode. There are exceptions, we still build tunnels, in the Alps, beneath the English Channel, or below cities, but it does seem to me that we prefer something other than a concrete wall to view through our windows.

Had humans risen to sentience among the valleys and caves of Sothern France rather than the agoraphobic savannahs of Africa, perhaps our approach to traversing geographic barriers would have taken a more troglodytic tendency.

But what if we had liked tunnels and disliked bridges? Let’s say that in the late eighteen hundreds, there were several huge disasters where bridges collapsed, killing thousands of people. Of course the history of bridges is replete with disasters, the Tay Bridge disaster, the Tacoma Narrows bridge, and box girder bridges, but what if something spectacular, a Hindenburg of a viaduct perhaps, or a Titanic of a flyover. Perhaps then we would look beneath our feet for a safe solution to our transportation needs.

Another consideration is whether we might have given preference to developing submarines over aircraft. Thanks to the marvel of supercavitation, we now know how to design objects able to travel underwater at supersonic speeds. In other words, a submarine can go from England to New York faster than the Concorde. Liverpool, lets say, to New York and back in time for a scotch before retiring for the night. Perhaps, you’re well heeled Glaswegian businessman could take his lady to Broadway for the evening.

A few short hours would see you in Rio de Janeiro or Capetown, a brief 12 hours and you can be walking amongst the pagodas of Rangoon or coasting past the Great Barrier Reef, enraptured by the swirling colours of submarine life. You could disembark from your submarine to travel the tunnels built to show the great reef in all its splendour.

Imagine transparent tunnels, giving views of the kelp beds, the shoals of silver herring, an octopus sitting on the tunnel glaring down at you like one of Wells’ Martians, the Glasgow to Montreal submarine skimming by, little children waving at you from the portholes.

Where would this technology take us? Networks of floating tunnels, tunnels on the sea bed rather than beneath it.

War would see dog fights in sub-marine canyons, pilots floating to the surface in safety pods, fear of the bends as distant a memory as scurvy and leprosy.

If we knew the Earth’s crust so well, would we be able to cause earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. What would a war be like where a capital city could be reduced to rubble by a targeted earthquake?