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Will Underwater Cities Ever Actually Happen?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
We've got the legend of Atlantis, and blockbuster movies like "Aquaman" and "Waterworld" - but will underwater cities ever become a reality? For many, it's an impossible dream. But, some theorists say we could be living, breathing, eating and drinking under the ocean within just a century or two. In fact, given growing environmental concerns, we might have to.

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Will Underwater Cities Ever Actually Happen?

Underwater cities have been a prominent part of our culture for centuries. Atlantis – a fictional place mentioned even as far back as in the Platonic Dialogues – is easily the most famous example. While Plato pitched it as an allegory for a villainous power antagonizing his ideal state, many listeners took the tale literally and began speaking of the fabled lost city under the sea – which, in turn, inspired countless other accounts of subaquatic worlds. And while experts today agree that Atlantis was a fictional creation, there have been debates regarding Plato’s inspiration, with some scholars suggesting that his ideas were influenced by real events, or even a long-lost civilization.

Regardless of the validity of the Atlantis legend, the concept of an underwater city has become a pop culture mainstay. Various films, books, TV shows, and video games have told stories about a mythical underwater realm. But, while they may excite our imaginations, we know that a true underwater existence will never be a reality. Or will it?

There are clearly reasons why we might want to go underwater, at least. Some proponents for underwater cities believe that the move would solve overpopulation issues. As more and more people are born and as land becomes increasingly cluttered, the human race will eventually need to find somewhere else to live. While we’ve tended to point to Mars or the Moon in the past, some alternative thinkers have suggested more marine locations.

Others believe that underwater settlements would protect and ensure the survival of our species in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster like a major volcanic eruption, flood, or asteroid strike… While there’s also an argument that underwater cities could be the answer to manmade catastrophes, as well. Global warming and climate change may soon render large parts of land uninhabitable, and evidence points towards coastal cities eventually being completely submerged by the sea. According to some figures, nearly 700 worldwide coastal communities will be affected by rising sea levels by the end of this century, with danger-zones ranging from Oakland, Miami, and New York, to Shanghai and Hong Kong. So, in some ways there isn’t much choice in the matter – cities will exist under the water, it’s just whether or not we can adapt to them.

The good news is that seemingly next-gen tech for small underwater structures already exists. Ian Koblick, the founder of a pioneering underwater research facility called La Chalupa, has even said that we could feasibly create colonies of up to 100 people using knowledge and materials that we currently have. For the actual build, industry experts tend to point to glass, plus specific cements that are often used in underwater construction. It’s also generally agreed that we shouldn’t go deeper than 1,000 feet, to avoid too many problems with logistics, decompression, and general health. And while colonies may struggle for a reliable source of power, suggested workarounds include hydroelectric methods or solar energy via panels placed on the surface of the water.

But, once a habitat of any kind is built, how would we actually live there? Food would be a mixture of canned products and preservatives, as these don’t require cooking and have a longer shelf life. You might reasonably expect a fair amount of fresh seafood on the menu, too! Fresh water would either need to be transported from the surface or created through an advanced desalination technique. Of course, that particular issue would be much less problematic for fresh water colonies, compared to salt water. As for human waste, it’d most likely be ejected out of whatever structure a society was living in, and into the surrounding water. Which, while efficient, doesn’t exactly conjure a sparkling mental image…

As for clean, breathable air, current research stations use air compressors and tubes that literally push fresh air down from the surface, using chemicals to remove carbon dioxide. However, when it comes to deeper depths or larger colonies, further technological breakthroughs would still need to be made to ensure constant and reliably clean air. The first underwater locales – should they ever exist – would be much more basic, with inhabitants perhaps even relying on scuba-style tanks in case of an emergency.

That said, it’s clear that the technology for small colonies is already here, and that the fundamentals for simple, no-frills, under-the-sea living have already been thoroughly explored. While they may not be large, modern cities ala Atlantis or “Bioshock’s” Rapture, they would offer reasonably comfortable living conditions for a few dozen daring (and pioneering) people.

But what of those massive cities? The sprawling waterworlds we can probably all imagine? Opinion is still split on whether they’re possible, but there are positive signs. Tech giant Samsung put together a SmartThings Future Living Report in 2016, which highlighted various potential aspects of our futuristic lifestyles. According to the report, we will be living both on and under the water by the end of the 21st century – with floating homes and communities becoming especially popular, as they’ll allow us to travel toward favourable climates.

However, some companies are thinking even bigger, and suggesting that we’ll get there even quicker. The Japanese firm Shimizu Corp has reportedly already planned for hypothetical underwater cities to be fully operational by 2030. Their conceptual building is called Ocean Spiral, and it can accommodate up to 5,000 people. It sees individual houses enclosed in a giant sphere, that rests just below the surface of the water. It’s anchored – via a massive 15-kilometer-long spiral – to another structure which sits 4,000 meters below the surface, housing an expert team to keep an eye on maintenance and mine for resources. As for power, it’s proposed that it’ll use carbon dioxide from the surface and convert it into methane. Throw in fish farms for food and desalination devices for drinking water, plus special generators that harvest changes in water temperature as part of something called ocean thermal energy conversion, and you have a fully-fledged feat of futuristic engineering.

The hypothetical structure would cost an eye-watering $25 billion and could still take decades to build, but Shimizu’s officials say that the project does already have some backing. They now only have to wait for the rest of the funding. Which could still take a while to materialise…

The Aequorea project is yet another ambitious initiative, led by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut. This project foresees several structures called “oceanscrapers” that stretch from the surface of the sea to its floor. These impressive builds are also only hypothetical – at this stage, anyway – but they could house up to 20,000 people and would be largely constructed from recycled plastic collected from our planets most polluted waters.

Function-wise, they too would reach a depth of 1,000 feet, and would theoretically serve as self-sustaining communities – with offices, hotels and even farms included. Drinking water would again be created through desalination, bioluminescence would provide light, and waste would be dealt with using microalgae. In one especially innovative move, the outer walls would gradually thicken at greater depths to counteract increasing pressure.

All of these proposals hint towards a perfect world, unless of course you have a fear of being underwater. However, almost all of the visions of subaquatic serenity unfortunately remain just that – visions – with few projects progressing beyond the planning stage.

While we are – to a certain extent – aiming for underwater colonies, various obstacles exist that have so far prevented them from becoming a reality… namely that they’d be expensive to build, difficult to maintain and – though some aspects of them could reduce pollution – we’d likely risk damaging oceanic environments by building them.

In turn, all of those issues may have created a lack of enthusiasm or motivation for the pursuit of various Atlantis ideals. Certainly, these projects rarely receive as much attention as NASA’s latest endeavour into space, or Elon Musk’s most recent attempt to tame Mars. Whenever we’re considering where humans could one day relocate to, we typically look to the skies and the stars. But, the answer could well be a little closer to home, and one day we may all be sleeping with the fishes – but, in a good way!

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