Arts, Culture & Media

Geo answer: fifty miles

Time to answer our Geo Quiz now. We wanted you to guess the distance between Russia and the United States at its closest mainland point.

From Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point (169�43' W) on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula across the Bering Strait to Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point (168�05' W) of North America on Alaska's Seward Peninsula is about 50 miles. (82 km, 50.9 miles). The Bering Strait is approximately 53 miles wide.

So FIFTY is the answer we were looking for. Crossing that distance isn't as easy as it appears as The World's David Leveille reports:

What if there were a tunnel linking Russia with the United States, an underwater tunnel running under the Bering Strait?

That idea may come up this weekend when President Bush visits his Russian counterpart President Putin in the southern Russian resort city of Sochi. The British newspaper the Sunday Times reports Putin plans to raise the idea of a Bering Strait tunnel during a planned meeting to talk about long term US-Russia relations. That particular conversation, if it does happen, started back in 1905 when Russia's last tsar Nicholas II approved a plan for a tunnel under the Bering Strait. That was before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution intervened. But the idea didn't die.

"There's always been these dreams and there's always been people talking big about this tunnel."

Russian historian Ilya Vinkovetsky teaches at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

It's been around for a long, long time. It resurfaces every few years. It was much more timely under Gorbachev, at that point there was euphoria in the USSR about linking with the USA, when Russia was much more open, and now it is not.

Vinkovetsky does not believe Putin will seriously propose the idea in Sochi. He says recent news reports are nothing but Kremlin rumors.

"Putin has many other concerns right now and obviously there's a great deal of tension between the countries because of what's happening and with NATO expansion that's not going to be on their agenda, so I think that story was made up by somebody, everything leads me to believe it was a joke."

In fact the Moscow Times weighed in on the subject with a April Fool's Day report about an enormous tunnel between Moscow and Washington on the drawing board...one that would "alleviate traffic jams as bureaucrats rush between the Kremlin and the White House."

But even if a real Bering Strait link does come up in talks between the two presidents, Vinkovetsky says the idea is flawed:

"Technically it is possible to do, the problem is there is practically nothing on either side, if this were France and England on either side that would be very different you have much larger road networks, population centers on either side but this is an extremely remoter part of Alaska and remote part of Siberia."

A trans-continental tunnel wouldn't come cheap. Russian engineers estimate the mega tunnel project would run 65 billion dollars. It would include a highway, high-speed rail lines, pipelines and power cables.

"The tunnel itself will be complicated but it's well within technological reach."

Jack Lemley is an American civil engineer who oversaw the design and construction of the 34 mile tunnel under the English Channel. He thinks a tunnel under the Bering Strait is an idea whose time has come...and he'd happily share that advice with the two presidents:

"I would say it will prove to be a mark in both of their political stewardship that will last for centuries to come and will be responsible for building closer relations between the Americas and Russia and I think that's at least as important as the space program that is costing more money that this link will cost."

Lemley says another plus is that the tunnel would be an important energy link to Russia's oil and natural gas:

"The resource rich areas on both sides of the Strait -- that will be an increasingly important reason to have such a link. I think they're will be much more resource exchange than just petroleum."

Lemley thinks big...he says the tunnel could be a new highway for global communication....a thoroughfare that would boost cross-border traffic. Everything from cheap cigarettes to languages, tourism and trade would flow across the border.

But whether the ambitious plan to tunnel under the Bering Strait goes beyond a pipe dream is anyone's guess. If it does pick up steam, engineer Jack Lemley says he'd be the first to sign on:

"If anyone's listening who is interested in hiring somebody I'd be more than interested in working on it (laughs)."

For The World, I'm David Leveille.

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