A tectonic plate collision is messing with China’s new railway in the Haba Snow Mountain region

Will the tunnel ever be finished?
Loukia Papadopoulos
Haba Snow Mountain main.jpg
The Haba Snow Mountain seen in the morning.Gujiang xie/iStock
  • The pressure put on the rocks has been compared to “75 elephants standing on a single foot.”
  • There is a crew of 1200 working day and night trying to stabilize the project.
  • The rocks are made of lava, making them particularly vulnerable to pressure.

The collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates is squeezing sections of a tunnel built in the Haba Snow Mountain in China meant to be used for a new railway, reported the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Squeezed from 12 meters to three

It took less than a month for the tunnel in the Deqen Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Yunnan to be squeezed from a diameter of 12 meters to less than three. This length is barely enough for a car to pass, much less a train.

The SCMP added that the rocks around the tunnel had come under pressure as great as 30 megapascals. For comparison, this is similar to the pressure that would come from “75 elephants standing on a single foot.”

“The Haba Snow Mountain Tunnel completely surpassed my understanding of tunnel construction,” Tian Weiquan, project manager with the China Railway Sixth Group Corporation, was quoted by the Science and Technology Daily in a report published on Wednesday.

“It is the most challenging tunnel in China at present… with the deformation rate, duration and damage all breaking previous records,” he added.

The rocks of the Haba Snow Mountain are particularly vulnerable to pressure as they are made from lava.

A tectonic plate collision is messing with China’s new railway in the Haba Snow Mountain region
Haba Snow Mountain

The engineers attempted to secure the tunnel with sturdy reinforced concrete structures, but the gargantuan pressure from the tectonic plates turned the cement to dust and even ripped apart the steel rods keeping it in place.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

Construction on the railway began eight years ago, and the rail was supposed to be operational by the end of this year. Now, the engineers are struggling to meet this deadline.

Weiquan and his team of 1200, four times more than previously planned, said that they had conceived of one potential solution. They will attempt to drill a hole smaller than designed through the mountain, which would potentially help release most of the pressure that has now built up in the lava rocks.

As soon as the plates stop shifting, they will then use this hole to expand the tunnel.

The railway is a particularly important one as it is meant to connect Tibet to Southeast Asia, promoting economic development on the world’s highest plateau and ushering in an era of faster and cheaper cargo transport to ports in the South China Sea.

Will the engineers who are working day and night manage to meet their deadlines so that China may benefit from this marvel of engineering, or will the forces of nature be too much to handle? After all, if the nation can build a hypersonic wind tunnel, surely they can tackle this project.

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