Features, Future Please

Future, Please: Underwater Cities

June 20, 2013

underwater cities

From the ever-iterating myth of Atlantis to the underwater utopias of post-Golden Age science fiction, we were promised a better world beneath the waves.

Atlantis: The Ultimate Suburban Flight

A city where the artist would not fear the censor.
Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.
Where the great would not be constrained by the small.
And with the sweat of your brow,
Rapture can become your city as well.

-Andrew Ryan, Bioshock

BioShock‘s Rapture is rooted in a long tradition of fictional undersea utopian experiments. Perhaps the most widely known is Atlantis, popularized (if not invented) by Plato in Timaeus and the uncompleted Critias. In his version, Plato describes Atlantis as a powerful naval empire composed of ten federated city states on an island in the Atlantic. This original version was destroyed after the natives – previously described as nearly perfect in their character and society – sank under the burden of base human nature.

The myth of Atlantis has been iterated countless times over the last few millennia. It is variously the home of extra-terrestrial genetic engineers, matriarchal psychics, and improbably advanced human civilizations. While most versions of the myth accept Atlantis’s destruction, focusing on the search for its ruins, the most bizarre posit its continued existence as a kind of stealth utopia; its citizens, whether non-human, ascended humans, or lords of forgotten science, lurk beneath the waves and quietly judge us for fighting wars and shopping at Walmart.

Doctor Who has visited Atlantis several times. In the show’s canon, it was briefly ruled by a mad scientist who plotted to blow up the Earth and kept bio-engineered fish-people as agricultural slaves; they escaped following the re-destruction of Atlantis and are, presumably, alive and well.

While the Golden Age of science fiction looked mostly to the stars, a number of underwater cities emerged in the 1960s and ’70s as set pieces for fictional adventure and utopian experiment. That this corresponded with advocacy films such as Soylent Green was, I think, no accident:  dry land was an increasingly frightening place, population figures were terrifying, social unrest was at a disquieting high, and nuclear war was a clear and present danger. We were warned constantly that we would soon run out of food, devastate our land-based ecosystems, and die fighting our neighbors when racial and social tensions exploded.

The same impulse that drove suburban flight fueled a flight from dry land itself. Life underwater promised abundant space, limitless food from the oceans, and fresh mystery from the hidden depths of our otherwise tired planet. Pohl, Hughes, White, and many others set their splinter groups, utopian settlements, and haunted castles beneath the waves and beyond the reach of our surface concerns.

While today’s fiction celebrates apocalypse, rather than fleeing from it, the impulse to colonize the sea has moved from the pulp rack to the drawing board. The rationale varies with the project: global warming, ecosystem collapse, multiculturalism, and taxes are all cited as reasons to flee the land for a new Atlantis.

This time, it won’t sink. Civil engineering has come a long way.


Floating Cities in Design Fiction

A number of proposals and design fictions for artificial islands are on the table. Starting with the most pedestrian example – and therefore the most likely to be built – we’ve a pirate tax haven taking shape off the coast of San Francisco.

Peter Theil, founder of PayPal, is currently teamed with Patri Freedman to develop a giant, diesel-powered floating island in international waters. His stated goal is to secede from the Westphalian nation-states, with their pesky taxes and labor regulations, within the next seven to ten years.

A mostly-submerged arcology would be much closer to the ideal. Consider the Gyre, designed by Zigloo in 2010.

Zigloo Gyre

As designed, the lowest levels of the Gyre would rest 400m below the waves. The upper levels would support trade, farming, power generation, and rainwater collection, with the rest devoted to providing truly excellent views of the ocean for its 2,000 inhabitants.

Floating tax havens or skyscrapers aren’t the escape we were promised, however. True freedom, abundance, and adventure were to be found beneath the waves, in domed utopias of our own creation. No one is pushing to colonize the bottom of the ocean, but at least one designer is delivering the domes. Behold Sub-Biosphere 2, brainchild of noted mad genius Phil Pauley:

Sub Biosphere 2

This floating city clusters around a central, domed biome, with each of its eight domes containing a separate terrestrial ecosystem. Total height would be forty stories above water, twenty below, and the city would measure around 337m across. Sub-Biosphere 2 could either ride the surface or partially submerge, as conditions dictate.

Inspired by the Biosphere 2 project, Pauley intends for his floating utopia to be entirely self-sustaining. Its nine self-contained ecosystems would feed its citizens, recycle their waste, and scrub the atmosphere, while supporting a seed bank of plant and animal species should we truly destroy ourselves on land.

Pauley’s seeking funding for the project while he executes a similar feat of ecological systems engineering under the auspices of the Saudi government:  a domed, self-supporting rainforest in the desert. Even if he, or other floating settlement projects like the Seasteading Institute, succeed in colonizing the surface of the ocean, it would seem that the ocean-floor utopias of classic fiction are considered out of reach even in our most radical design fiction.

There’s a reason we can’t have nice things.


Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Consider the domed city on the bottom of the ocean. It’s isolated, self-sufficient and free of all non-voluntary association with the blighted civilizations above. It is also nearly impossible to build and would suffer certain ecological collapse.

Constructing a self-sufficient domed city under the ocean would require at least three near-magical engineering advances and constitute a feat of heroic project management:

  • First, materials and civil engineers must develop a dome of sufficient strength to enclose a city of several thousand people, in atmosphere, under a thousand feet of water (with no possibility of failure, ever, or they all die).
  • Second, electrical power engineers have to provide a fully-renewable power source sufficient to heat an entire city, while desalinating sufficient fresh water for agricultural and human consumption, with enough left over to run a small technological civilization. Solar power isn’t an option and fission power isn’t renewable, leaving us powering the dome-city with magically efficient geothermal and tidal energy systems.
  • Imagine trying to build a skyscraper while wearing Category III personal protective equipment, in the dark, in Winter, while all of your workers and support personnel live out of sealed construction trailers and eat nothing but MREs. For bonus points, to keep faith with the mysterious nature of fictional undersea utopias, you have to plan, supply, and execute in total secrecy.

I believe the project managers among us just stopped reading.

  • Even granting all of the above, our city needs to support people. That means bringing our supporting ecosystem with us, which is a non-trivial task. So much so, in fact, that we’ve never accomplished anything like it on land. To the best of my knowledge, closed-system experiments with human subjects ended in the United States decades ago. While Biosphere 2 did (as one version of the story goes) support a small crew of humans for two years, the planned ecosystems failed to function as designed, CO2 levels were madly unpredictable, and there remains substantial argument as to whether or not the Biosphere 2 was a truly closed system. A Russian project, BIOS-3, supported three people for six months at its height, though they supplemented their diet with imported food. No likely short-term advances in agricultural and genetic engineering appear likely to provide an engineering solution to this problem.

Undersea cities are terribly unlikely without implausible advances in technology and an astounding resource commitment. Seasteading on floating tax havens may be the closest we get to living in the domed utopias of science fiction.


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