The United States and Russia are separated by a waterway in the Pacific Ocean known as the Bering Strait. At its narrowest point, the strait separates the U.S. state of Alaska from Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug by 51 miles. Part of the strait freezes solid during winter, making it possible to walk across the strait. The strait is relatively shallow, with a depth varying between 98 and 160 feet. Both Asia’s easternmost point and North America’s westernmost point lie on the strait, and these are Cape Dezhnev and Cape Prince of Wales, respectively. Due to its remoteness and freezing temperatures, the region is sparsely populated. The largest settlement is the town of Nome, Alaska, which is home to about 3,800 residents. Lavrentiya is the largest town on the Russian side of the strait, which has about 1,460 inhabitants. The strait is crossed by International Date Line, which runs through the Diomede Islands, which means that Big Diomede Island and Little Diomede Island operate on different calendar dates.
The Cold War
The strait was heavily patrolled during the Cold War, as it marked the international border between the two countries involved in the conflict. Inhabitants of the Diomede Islands, which sit on the border, had crossed the border for many years for trade and cultural purposes. However, the border was completely closed during the Cold War, and cross-border movement was considered illegal. The border, which was also known as the “Ice Curtain,” was finally opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, and restricted cross-border movement on the Bering Strait resumed.
The Land Bridge
The origin of the Paleo-Indians who inhabited the Americas remained a mystery to scientists until a theory based on the history of Bering Strait was proposed. Historians believe that about 20,000 years ago, the Bering Strait was frozen solid resulting in the formation of a land bridge known as Beringia. The land bridge occupied an area of 0.62 million square miles at its peak and was 620 miles wide at its widest point. The formation of the land bridge made it possible for prehistoric humans who inhabited northern Asia to travel to North America by foot. Modern technological advances in DNA analysis, geology and archeology support this claim. The land bridge was formed during the Last Glacial Maximum and gradually shrank in size as temperatures rose, until it disappeared about 11,000 years ago.
Bering Strait Tunnel
For many years, the American and Russian governments have considered with the idea of constructing a tunnel that crosses the strait. Proposals for building a bridge across the strait to connect the two countries date as far back as the 19th century when Joseph Strauss, a renowned railroad engineer, submitted his proposal to construct a railroad bridge crossing the strait in 1892, but the Russian Empire rejected the proposal. The strait’s depth and ocean currents are of little concern, whereas the region’s low temperatures are the primary challenge. Russia has already started a project that will include the construction of a tunnel under the strait. The project, known as the “TKM-World Link,” aims at connecting Alaska to Siberia and is expected to feature the development of a 64-mile long tunnel under the strait. The Bering Strait section of the project is expected to cost about $12 billion.