Falkirk Wheel

Seven Modern Wonders of the World

We all know about the seven wonders of the ancient world, engineering marvels from antiquity such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but what about the modern wonders of the world? Which recently built structures inspire awe and reverence today? Here is a look at Seven Modern Wonders of the World (from the last 20 years), structures that push the boundaries of engineering possibility.

Three Gorges Dam, China

Three Gorges Dam(Three Gorges Dam image by putneymark on Flickr)

China’s rapid economic growth in the past twenty years has inspired plenty of huge infrastructure projects, and arguably the most mammoth of all has been the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. This controversial scheme to flood the upper Yangtze River in Hubei province displaced more than 1.3 million people, flooded precious archaeological sites, and swept away towns and villages forever. The cost of construction, it is estimated, came to around $22.5 billion, though the entire complex is not yet finished. Overall, the project used an incredible 463,000 tonnes of steel, enough steel, in fact, to build around 63 Eiffel Towers. This hydro-electric dam is now the world’s largest power station, with over 20,300 MW of installed capacity supplying energy to people and businesses as far away as Shanghai. Though it came at a huge price in economic, social and environmental terms, the electricity-generating aspect of the dam is expected to pay back the full cost of construction in less than a decade. As an added benefit, the Three Gorges Dam also created one of the world’s largest fresh-water reservoirs, used for drinking water and irrigation, and has prevented major flooding further downstream.

Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, China

(Video about the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge)

Another major engineering achievement in China has grabbed the headlines recently, with the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge now the longest bridge over water in the world. The bridge, which opened in June 2011, spans more than 26 miles across Jiaozhou Bay, connecting the districts Qingdao and Huangdao. Though the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana also claims the title of longest bridge over water, that bridge is some 3 miles shorter than its Chinese competitor. During construction of this epic bridge more than 2.3 million cubic metres of concrete were poured, enough to fill over 3,800 Olympic swimming pools. Workers, meanwhile, worked through the night to get this bridge completed in the startling time of just four years. Though some engineering faults were reported shortly after the bridge opened to traffic, the Chinese government claims the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge will be able to withstand major typhoons, strong earthquakes, and even collisions with oil tankers. Yet, due to China’s pace of change, this bridge will not hold the World Record for too long; another bridge in the Pearl River Delta is planned to be 5 miles longer!

Millau Viaduct, France

Millau Viaduct(Millau Viaduct image by alexmuller on Flickr)

From the longest bridge in the world to the highest, the Millau Viaduct in the southern French province of Aveyron holds the record for both the tallest bridge towers and highest pylons in the world, and stands at 343 metres at its highest point. A collaborative project between British architect Norman Foster and French engineer Michel Virlogeux, the Millau Viaduct opened to the public in 2004, and has wowed visitors ever since. The bridge carries one of France’s busiest autoroutes, between Paris and Montpellier, and is used by over 25,000 vehicles a day in the summer. Views from the road deck are said to be startling, so attention drivers: keep your eyes firmly on the road.

Channel Tunnel, UK and France

Channel Tunnel Eurostar(Eurostar trains which travel through the Channel Tunnel, image by mattbuck4950 on Flickr)

France is also home to half of another modern wonder, the Channel Tunnel. Though discussions about digging a tunnel under the English Channel between France and Britain date back to at least 1751, construction of the Chunnel, as it is affectionately known by locals, did not start until 1988, when Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand, political leaders in France and Britain, finally gave the go-ahead. The tunnel took 6 years and an army of 15,000 workers to construct, and is now the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Trains from St. Pancras travel through the tunnel to continental stations such as Paris Gare Du Nord, making the journey from London to Paris in as little as 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Falkirk Wheel, UK

Falkirk Wheel(Falkirk Wheel image by pyntofmyld on Flickr)

While Britain is well known for its rail heritage, before George and Robert Stevenson pioneered train travel the easiest way of getting around was to use the nation’s extensive network of canals. Still much loved and heavily used by leisure travellers today, Canals traditionally negotiate uneven terrain through the use of labour intensive and time consuming locks. In order to link the Forth and Clyde Canal with the much lower Union Canal, however, a novel rotating boat lift, the Falkirk Wheel, was built instead. Opened in 2002, this futuristic steel and concrete structure is the height of 8 double-decker busses stacked on top of one another, and uses a system of caissons and a rotating annulus to carry boats 79 feet into the air. Amazingly, each time the Falkirk Wheel rotates, it uses only 1.5KWh of energy, equivalent to boiling just 8 kettles of water. Now that is what I call efficient.

Palm Islands, Dubai

Palm Islands Dubai(Palm Islands Dubai, image by Global Spook on Flickr)

Not all Modern Wonders are so efficient or well-planned, however. The Palm Islands Resort off the coast of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has been beset by problems since it was first planned. A huge series of artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree, this wonder is visible from space, and used over 110,000,000 cubic metres of sand to construct. In fact, so large is the Palm Islands development that it has added almost 330 miles of beach to Dubai’s already popular coastline, and if you took the material used to reclaim land for the project, it would encircle the earth three times. Yet the Islands were poorly built, and the artificial archipelago is suffering from structural issues, with the New York Times even reporting that the islands are sinking. Seawater inside the development has also turned stagnant, while construction on subsequent Palm islands has ground to a halt due to the financial crisis. At completion, less than half the houses on the island had been sold, and, during the worst periods of Dubai’s recession, Palm properties were losing up to 20% of their value each and every month. The Palm Islands are perhaps a modern-day reminder, like the ancient Colossus of Rhodes that fell into the sea, of the folly of mankind.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Burj Khalifa(Burj Khalifa, image sideways due to its sheer height, image by Nicholas Lannuzel on Flickr)

Also located in Dubai, and just as controversial, is the monumental Burj Khalifa. If you suffer from vertigo, perhaps you should stop reading now as the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world and stands tall and proud at 2717 feet. As a comparison, the second tallest skyscraper in the world, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, is over 1000 feet shorter. During construction the tower gained a certain notoriety when Babu Sassi, a crane operator, claimed to have lived at the summit for over a year. It took, he explained, too long to get down to ground level each day to make the trip worth it. The Burj Khalifa’s truly astonishing scale has, predictably, attracted BASE jumpers, as well as free climbers such as Alain Robert, who scaled the outside of the building in less than six hours. Robert was so humbled by the size of the Burj Khalifa that he took the unusual step of using a rope and harness to ascend to the top. Yet, despite housing the lavish Armani Hotel, the Burj Khalifa has been something of a commercial flop, with over 825 of the building’s 900 apartments empty on any given night. Even the observation deck, the world’s tallest, of course, had to be closed to sightseers in 2010 after an electrical fault trapped tourists in an elevator for 45 minutes.

So whether today’s Wonders of the World are true engineering marvels, or simply monumental follies, they all, in their own way, impress and astonish.

Date posted: 22nd August, 2011

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