Spring ice clogs up the Bering Strait, via George Riggs, NASA GSFC
As much as we worry about climate change today, a warm, melted Arctic was actually a dream of geoengineers since at least the 19th century. But at the height of the Cold War, a Soviet scientist named Petr Mikhailovich Borisov proposed what may be the most ambitious Arctic melting project ever conceived: a dam spanning the 55 mile Bering Strait that would be big enough to redirect the currents of the world's oceans and force warming water to melt the Arctic Ocean forever.
As the warm Gulf Stream turns into the North Atlantic Current on its path towards the Arctic Circle, it gradually loses heat as it's bombarded by cold flows heading south from the ice. Eventually, it cools down completely, and powered by cold Pacific streams heading through the Bering Strait, turns back around, as shown in the offset figure below.
Borisov thus posited that if the cold influx of waters from the Pacific was reversed, the cold layer of low-salinity Arctic surface water could be replaced by the Gulf Stream's warm, salty waters that would be harder to freeze. It would also be self-sustaining, for Borisov argued that as the reflective ice melted, Arctic waters would absorb more heat and never freeze again.
Click to enlarge. Image: Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
It's important to note that Borisov wasn't a mad scientist or anything of that sort, and his work was of interest to the Soviet government, which was already funding a wide range of research looking to warm the Arctic. It was all aimed at solving a simple problem: Russia is too damn cold.
You might laugh, but while Soviet Russia was blessed with the largest land mass of any nation on Earth, much of it resource rich, putting that land to use was stunningly difficult. Currently about 63 percent of Russia is buried under permafrost, and as the CIA World Factbook notes, even today it is a significant barrier to development of Siberia.
Russia was already spending an enormous amount of money combating the ice. Exploiting the vast petroleum reserves of the Arctic and Siberia was crucial to the growth of the Soviet economy, but every well pitted far-flung men against frozen earth and wind.
The fight was against the sea itself as well. In the late 50s, around the time that Borisov proposed his dam, the USSR launched NS Lenin, the first nuclear-powered icebreaker, and the first nuclear-powered civilian ship. That on its own was a leap forward, and led to the creation of the largest nuclear icebreaker fleet ever created.
So in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet Union found itself trying to pit its land and resource advantage against the continental United States' more temperate climate. With space and the atom having been harnessed, why not the world's oceans? Why not the weather itself?
Regardless of all the negative aspects of the Cold War, it fueled—and was fueled by—an enormous amount of scientific innovation. With the whole world in play, both the US and Soviet Union were looking for developments on a global scale, which means scientists with outsized ideas were able to find equally outsized budgets. In the Soviet Union, that type of environment sent the first satellite, animal, and man into orbit; it also funded the research that led to the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated. (The US, meanwhile, was using nuclear bombs as enormous shovels.)
Click to enlarge: A map of Soviet permafrost based on CIA data from 1984. Permafrost has since been melting, but it serves as evidence of that vast ice problem the Soviet Union was faced with. Via Zonu.com
Even within a research environment that fostered huge ideas, Borisov stands out. Russian journalist Boris Lyubimov spoke with Borisov about his dam for a October 1959 article for Literaturnaya Gazeta. (The story was later translated by the US Joint Public Research Service.) According to the piece, Borisov imagined that the dam could be built with pre-fabricated concrete pontoons that would sink about 200 feet deep, which would feature large propellers built below the water line.
For Borisov, the key piece of the puzzle was blocking the Pacific from flowing into the Arctic Circle, which he argued would allow the Gulf Stream to flood the ice unimpeded. Powered by a 2,000 megawatt nuclear station (or, barring that, huge natural gas or coal plants) built on the frozen coast of Siberia, the dam's propellers would physically turn the world's oceans around.
Considering the huge theoretical benefits that a massive thawing would bring to Russia—ignoring the worldwide consequences, macro and micro, of totally reversing the ocean's flow, of course—and the type of big science environment Borisov's ideas were born it, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the USSR felt the idea worthy of research.
In fact, it wasn't just the Soviets that found Borisov's proposal intriguing. As far as Soviet-era research goes, Borisov's work is surprisingly well-discussed in English-speaking circles. That's partly because the Soviet Union made sure to hype the audacity of the project, like when a man (presumably an engineer) named Arkady Borisovich Markin chatted it up on Moscow radio, in order to make headlines in the US.
But it also made waves in the West because Borisov explicitly wanted American cooperation. He knew that such massive project would require more than simple American permission—not a small thing when you're considering reversing the world's oceans—it'd need American resources as well.
Described by Lyubimov as a "tall, broad-shouldered man with small brown eyes," Borisov had started dreaming of a warm Arctic soon after graduating from the Moscow Academy of Mining, when he began working in oil fields on the north part of Sakhalin, a large, remote island off of Siberia's southeast coast. Later he worked on the construction of the Saratov-Moscow gas pipeline, where he reportedly won the Stalin Prize. All throughout a career in fossil fuels spent traversing the Soviet Union's harshest environments, Borisov found people constantly battling the ice.
In the Literaturnaya Gazeta article, Lyubimov tells Borisov he estimates the dam would cost hundreds of billions of rubles. (At the time, the exchange rate was pegged at four Soviet rubles to one US dollar.) Borisov balked at the idea that it would be too expensive to build. From the translation:
"Well, what are you saying?" said Petr Mikhailovich in surprise. "Why hundreds! In my estimate, the dam will cost about seventy billion rubles. It's a lot of money, of course. But if we think that 31 billion rubles was spent on cultivating the virgin lands, and the investment has already boon paid back with interest, then is the sum of 70 billion such an immense one if it will make warmer hundreds of millions of hectares of land? Upon my word, the devil is not so black as he is painted."
In current US dollars, that amounts to nearly $138 billion. But Borisov dreamed of enlisting the US, Canada, Japan, and Northern Europe in the plan, as all would theoretically benefit from a warmer climate. Surprisingly, the US was intrigued by the idea. In fact, in a response to a series of questions sent in 1960 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Senator Kennedy noted, as part of a larger point about the value of innovation in fostering cooperation, that the Siberia-Alaska dam was "certainly worth exploring."
From the June 1956 issue of Popular Mechanics
Indeed, in that 1959 interview, Borisov imagined his colossal project as a piece of diplomacy. "The main problem which is on the minds of both N. S. Khrushchev and D. Eisenhower is that of warming up the political climate," he told Lyubimov. "When this warming up occurs, and the ice of the cold war melts, broad vistas for teamwork in warming up the eternal ice of the Arctic Ocean will open too. How close together the common struggle for such a great humanitarian cause as discovering for mankind new powerful sources of warmth and life will bring our peoples."
An article about the proposed dam in the June 1956 issue of Popular Mechanics predicted the final outcome when it concluded that "there is no sincere interest on the part of any of the nations involved, and that the Soviet scientists have publicized the possibility of this dam on various occasions merely for propaganda purposes." But ultimately, that assessment isn't fair.
Borisov held onto the idea for more than a decade, discussing the practicality and feasibility of the project in various papers. In 1973, he published a book, called Can Man Change the Climate?, that opens with a quote from Lenin about becoming "masters of nature." In it, he responded to the wealth of well-founded criticism with defiance.
"In essence, all these arguments boil down to this: It is impossible to create a Polar Gulf Stream, but even if it were possible, it would not be expedient," he wrote. "We need quantitative data to refute all these arguments."
"When this warming up occurs, and the ice of the cold war melts, broad vistas for teamwork in warming up the eternal ice of the Arctic Ocean will open too." - P.M. Borisov
According to Philip John Pocock, who discussed Borisov's book in an anthology of massive geoengineering projects, Borisov then went on to provide the data supporting his argument. We all know how the story ends: the dam was never built, and as period newspapers noted, it likely would have had disastrous effects elsewhere in the world.
But as Pocock points out, the project could have been started. Had Russia held onto Alaska, and had Borisov been closer to Stalin's inner circle, as other scientists were, it's quite possible that Borisov could have been given the okay to move forward with his plan to melt the Arctic. (Curiously, geoengineers have continued to find a friendly home in Russia, including in the inner circle of Vladimir Putin.) It's all hypothetical, of course, but it'd doubtful the United States would have wasted political capital on a Russian dam that the US already found intriguing, and which many scientists didn't think was feasible in the first place.
At this point in history, there's exactly zero chance of nations rallying behind an obscenely expensive, world-changing infrastructure project like this one. We'll never know if Borisov's design would have worked. We may still see the results of a thawed Arctic, however. Russia's permafrost may shrink by as much as 30 percent by mid-century, which tracks with all the other estimates that the Arctic will be ice-free at least part of the year by 2050. So while Borisov's plan to melt the Arctic with a giant dam may have been impossible, humans have still found a way.