June 21, 2017

Three Gorges Dam Visit

In April I travelled to China to discuss report cards with WWF China. Following the workshop (outlined in a previous blog), I was extremely lucky to be taken on a guided tour of the Three Gorges Dam that spans the Yangzte River in Hubei Province. Now this ain’t just any dam, it’s the biggest hydroelectricity generating dam in the world with a capacity of 85 terrawatt hours per year, or a 10th of China’s whole energy budget! Can you imagine?! In comparison, the Hoover Dam has capacity for 4.5 terrawatt hours per year. I love the statistics on this thing, so I will rattle off some more:

  • Drainage Area: ~1 million square kilometers
  • Height: 185 m
  • Length: 2,309 m
  • Width: 115 m at the base
  • Surface area: 1,084 km2
  • Flooded area length: 600 km
  • Capacity: 39.3 billion m3
  • Power turbines: 38
  • Construction time: 17 years
  • People relocated: 1.24 million (13 cities, 140 towns and 1350 villages were either flooded or partially flooded)
  • Estimated cost: ~$22 billion USD

Map of the location of the Three Gorges Dam. Image credit: Rolfmueller (commons) – Rolfmueller (wp-en) – from en wp, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=716968

So my overnight trip to the dam began with releasing bred Chinese sturgeon back to the Yangtze River at a high profile event in Yichang, just downstream of the dam wall. This was the 59th release by the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute of the China Three Gorges Corporation, which has introduced more than five million sturgeon to the wild since the 1980s. The reason for this? The dam has interfered with the habitat and migration patterns of the sturgeon, in particular their ability to reach breeding grounds that were once above the dam wall. I wasn’t aware of this, but the Chinese sturgeon is held in the same regard by Chinese people as the Panda. Hence the significant effort to keep the species alive in the Yangtze. There was some excitement at this event as there had been some recent anecdotal evidence that sturgeon had found some suitable habitat below the dam in recent years. I was lucky enough to personally release a sturgeon back to the river. I wonder how she is doing?

Releasing a Chinese sturgeon to the Yangtze River. Image credit: www.news.cn

We then boarded a bus to the dam itself. The drive there was more spectacular than I imagined. The area was very mountainous with lush vegetation. Upon arriving at the dam, the first thing to come to my attention was….the dam. The really big dam. I’d never seen so much concrete before.

View of the Three Gorges Dam from the north bank of the Yangtze River. Image credit: Simon Costanzo

We started our tour at the pair of ship locks, each made up of 5 x 280 m long stages. These allow ships up to 10,000 tonnes to traverse the dam wall in about 4 hours. The flooded area, created by the dam, increases navigability in the river by a further 650 km upstream which has lead to a significant upswing in shipping traffic and freight.

One stage of the 5-stage lock system allowing passage past the dam wall. Image credit: Simon Costanzo

We then moved onto the power generators located at the base of the dam. The building, in the below picture, is one of two generator banks housing the 6000 tonne turbines. I think the picture demonstrates the awe-inspiring scale of the whole set-up.

Inside the north power generating bank.

Next we boarded a ship to travel up the dam wall. Yes I said that right, a ship up the dam wall. It turns out the 4-hour lock passage was taking too long. So they built the world’s biggest ship elevator capable of lifting ships (up to 3000 tonnes) directly up the 120 m dam wall. I was told I was the first foreign academic to travel up the lift, and up we did go, in 8 minutes flat! It’s like a giant bath tub that is lifted with a ship floating in it. Unbelievable. At the top, a big gate opens and the ship motored straight out onto 180 m deep water. On its journey back down, it generates electricity.

Needless to say, I had a great day.

Entering the Three Gorges Dam ship lift. Image credit: Simon Costanzo

View from the back of the ship as it and the water it was floating in is hoisted 180 m up the dam wall. Image credit: Simon Costanzo

Cruising out of the ship lift at the top. Image credit: Simon Costanzo

The view from the top of the dam wall. Image credit: Simon Costanzo

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About the author
Simon is a science integrator with IAN. He has a PhD in Marine Biology from the University of Queensland, Australia. Simon's scientific interests include water quality, toxicology and science communication.
Website: http://ian.umces.edu/people/Simon_Costanzo/
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Filed under: Environmental Report Cards,Science Communication,Learning Science — Simon Costanzo @ 11:00 am


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