The UK's Daily Mail reported Tuesday that Russia was planning to construct an enclosed city in its high-Arctic region, allowing as many as 5,000 residents to live 1,000 miles from the North Pole. The idea would be to allow for further exploration of Russia's Arctic holdings, as well as scientific research. According to the Daily Mail, "soldiers, border guards and secret service officers" would be housed there.
The idea sounds outlandish. Well, it is outlandish. The Daily Mail estimated the construction of the entire city -- a city meant to house 5,000 people, mind you -- at the equivalent of about $6.4 billion. That's less than Texas is spending right now to string wind-power transmission lines across the state, and less than the projected cost for a D.C. Metro rail system. So if Russia can build a self-sustaining city on a remote Arctic archipelago for that kind of money, well, more power to them.
Alaska had its own well-known flirtation with an enclosed city back in the 1960s and '70s after the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay. Seward's Success was to be an even grander endeavour than the city that Russia now proposes, with the ability to host 40,000 residents at a comfy, year-round, climate-controlled temperature of 68 degrees, only two miles away from Anchorage. And while the Russians' recent announcement may draw some chuckles and eye rolls, that reaction stands in sharp contrast to the rosy picture painted by a 1970 article in Popular Mechanics magazine:
Buildings that go up in the first phase of construction will cost $170 million and provide living accommodation for the first 5,000 residents. There will also be 600,000 square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, and a completely enclosed sports arena. Power for all this will be generated on site from abundant natural gas. Construction will go on all year with warm-air-filled balloon tents enclosing the site during winter months.
Alaska used to dream big, just like the Russians are doing now. A special irony in that excerpt from Popular Mechanics is the mention of "abundant natural gas," as Anchorage seems perpetually caught in a battle to keep the city supplied with heat and electricity. Not to mention Alaska's own long-held dream of getting a natural gas pipeline -- any natural gas pipeline -- beyond the study phase.
Seward's Success wasn't the only enclosed city idea in the Alaska history books, either. Mike Gravel, the former U.S. Senator from Alaska, had dreams for the ultimate tourist trap: a four-square-mile teflon dome dubbed "Denali City" that would have hosted shops, hotels, and even tennis courts as a way of drawing tourists to Alaska's famous national park in the winter months. Gravel lost re-election in 1980, effectively killing the grand plans.
Russia's dome-city isn't the only big idea that's been kicked around by the nation in the last few months. Some are in the same, World's Fair-worthy vein as their most recent announcement. Among them are a $60-$100 billion underground tunnel spanning the Bering Strait and connecting Alaska to its westerly neighbor, and an Arctic Park that looks to capitalize on Arctic tourism.
But other ideas aren't quite as outlandish -- and may give some U.S. lawmakers pause. 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, responding to the possibility that Vladimir Putin will take the presidency in Russia in 2012 after a stint as the country's Prime Minister, warned that Putin could be interested in "rebuilding the Russian empire." House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday urged the U.S. to reevaluate its ties with Russia and accused the country of attempting to reinstitute "Soviet-style power and influence" by using "old thinking and old tools."
But that old thinking and those old tools are precisely what's getting Russia ahead in the Arctic. Where Russia recently ordered six new icebreakers to supplement their already-existing fleet, Alaska's Senators -- with cooperation from the U.S. Coast Guard -- have been all but begging for funding for a new icebreaker in the U.S. fleet, which currently consists of two out-of-commission heavy icebreakers and one medium icebreaker.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com