There are many jaw-dropping structural feats around the world, each with its own interesting engineering designs.

But the one type of structure that always leaves us in great awe is dams.

Their sheer dimension and immense capacity tend to have a humbling effect on anyone who comes across these structures. It often feels a bit like standing in front of a calm, reassuring giant staring at you in all its glory.

And it goes without saying, dams are some of the most intricately designed structures in the world.


What is a dam?

A dam, as defined by the British Dam Society is:

A barrier or structure across a stream, river, or waterway to confine and then control the flow of water. Dams vary in size from small earth embankments, often for farm use, to high massive concrete structures generally used for water supply, hydropower, and irrigation.”

The Jinping-1 dam is the tallest in the world. Source: David/Wikimedia Commons

Such structures are essential and crucial for providing energy and water management to many communities around the world. Dams are usually built across or near naturally flowing water, in order to manage water resources for human needs.

What are some record-breaking dams?

Dams are amazing structures in and of themselves. But some among them stand out as truly outstanding works of engineering.

For example, the highest dam in the world, as recognized by Guinness World Records, is the Jinping-1 Dam in Sichuan, China. She is a whopping 1,000 feet (305 mt) tall — taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The smallest dam in the world, according to some sources, is the Inks Dam on the Colorado River. She stands at around 97 feet (29.4 meters) tall and is about 1,550 feet (472 mt) long.

The deepest dam in the world is widely considered to be the Parker Dam on the Lower Colorado Basin. Built with 380,000 cubic yards (290,531 cubic meters) of concrete, the dam has a height of 320 feet (98m), 73% of which is below the original river bed. Only around 85 feet (26m) of the dam’s structure is visible.

What are some of the world’s most fascinating and famous dams?

And so, without further ado, here are but some of the world’s most interesting and famous dams. Here, you will discover some of the largest and most groundbreaking dams around the globe, many of which are used to produce sustainable energy.

Who knows, some of these could be very near to you! This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Contra Dam in Switzerland was in GoldenEye!

13 of the World's Most Fascinating Dams
Source: By Audrix / Creative Commons 

First on our list of fascinating dams would have to be the Contra Dam, most commonly known as the Verzasca Dam, in Ticino, Switzerland. It is perhaps one of the most famous dams, for its epic appearance in the opening scene of the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye.

Contra Dam is a slender concrete arch dam standing at a height of 722 feet (220 mt), with a crest length of 1,247 feet (80 mt). Because of the dam’s slender design, the volume of concrete required to construct it was reduced, which consequently cut down the cost of construction.

The dam’s base is 292 feet (8 mt) in width and gradually tapers up to 723 feet (7 mt) at the crest. Two spillways were incorporated at each side of the structure, which has a maximum discharge capacity of 1,300 cubic meters per second. Contra Dam also produces power through its 105 MW power station, which uses 3×35 MW Francis turbines to generate an average of 234 GWh per year.

The Lago di Vogorno reservoir was created by the dam’s construction between 1961-1965 and is now impounded by the dam. This reservoir has a maximum capacity of 105,000,000 cubic meters of water and a surface area of 400 acres.

2. Another fascinating dam is the Gordon Dam in Australia

Gordon dam and Lake Gordon in Tasmania, Australia
Source: JJ Harrison / Flickr

Located in southwest Tasmania in Australia, Gordon Dam is a double curvature concrete arch dam. One of the dam’s amazing features is that it’s curved both in the vertical and horizontal directions to resist large hydraulic pressures coming from the 12,359,040 megaliters of water in Lake Gordon, the largest lake in Australia.

The immense volume of water is diverted 600 feet (183 mt) to the underground power station, where three hydro turbines can generate up to 432 MW of power. Approximately 13% of Tasmania’s electricity demand is provided by the Gordon Power Station.

Out of the 48 arch dams that have been built in Australia, Gordon Dam is one of the only nine that is designed as a double curving dam.

3. Monticello Dam (USA)

13 of the World's Most Fascinating Dams
Source: Jeremybrooks / Creative Commons

This 305 ft (93 mt) concrete arch dam in California, USA is one of the coolest dams in the world because of its mesmerizing spillway sometimes referred to, unfortunately, as “the Glory Hole“. The spillway is an uncontrolled morning glory type with a tip diameter of 72 feet (22 mt), and sits within the perimeters of Lake Berryessa, the seventh largest man-made lake in California.

It can drain 48,400 cubic feet per second of water during the lake’s peak level, which occurs when the lake rises to 15 feet (4.7 mt) above the spillway’s lip. The exit end of the spillway is also famous as a full pipe for skateboarders.

Monticello dam impounds the Putah Creek, and can generate 56,806,000 kWh of power annually using 2×5 MW and 1×1.5 MW turbines.

4. Hoover Dam in the USA is probably one of the most iconic of all dams

fascinating dams hoover dam
Source: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons

Hoover Dam is one of the most iconic dams around the world, stretching between the American states of Nevada and Arizona. Originally called the Boulder Dam, this colossal structure stands at a height of 726 feet (221.4 mt), with a base width of 656 feet (200 mt) and a crest width of 46 feet (14 mt).

It’s a concrete gravity-arch dam that was constructed with the purpose to control floods, provide irrigation water, produce hydroelectric power, store water, and create a recreation area. The hydropower station houses various turbines, including a 1×61.5 MW Francis turbine and 2×2.4 MW Pelton turbine, which produce an annual electrical output of 4.2 TWh.

One of the most involved preparations made for the construction of Hoover Dam was the diversion of the Colorado River away from the site. To make this happen, four diversion tunnels were bored through the canyon walls — two on the Nevada side and two on the Arizona side.

On the 1st of February, 1935, a few years after the Colorado River was diverted, a steel gate was lowered down to allow the water to take its natural course again. That was the first time in history when the Colorado River was fully under human control.

The dam impounds the Colorado River, which consequently forms Lake Mead, the largest artificial reservoir by volume in the United States when full.

5. The Chinese Three Gorges Dam is another interesting dam

13 of the World's Most Fascinating Dams
Source: Le Grand Portage- Rehman/ Creative Commons

Known as the world’s largest hydropower dam, the Three Gorges Dam stretches out 1.4 miles (2.3 km) to span and impound the Yangtze river in the Hubei province in China.

Capable of producing 87 TWh of electricity per annum, this hydropower dam uses 32×700 MW and 2×50 MW Francis turbines. Its structural profile is designed with a large base width of 377 feet (115 mt) and it tapers to 131 feet (40 mt) at the crest.

Intended not only to produce electricity, the Three Gorges Dam was also constructed to increase the shipping capacity of the Yangtze river and mitigate the chances of flooding downstream by providing large water storage space.

The most mind-blowing fact about this dam is that when it was built, it flooded a total area of 156,171 acres (632 square kilometers) of land with water weighing more than 39 trillion kilograms (42 billion tons). This was a large enough amount of water that it increased the Earth’s moment of inertia and slowed the planet’s rotation by an estimated 0.06 microseconds. This, in turn, made the Earth very slightly more round in the middle and flat on the top, shifting the pole position by about 0.8 inch (2 cm).

6. The Tarbela Dam in Pakistan is an amazing piece of engineering

Tarbela dam releasing a large volume of water
Source: Paul Duncan/Wikimedia Commons

Considered the largest earth-filled dam in the world, the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan impounds the Indus river and serves as irrigation supply, flood control, and to produce hydroelectric power.

In order to properly divert the Indus river, the dam’s construction had to be done in three stages, where large tunnels were constructed to act as diversion channels. The dam’s main wall was built with earth and rockfill that spans 9,000 feet (2,743 mt) from the island to the right-hand side of the river. Two concrete auxiliary dams span the river from the island to the left-hand-side.

Equipped with 10×175 MW and 4×432 MW of turbines, Tarbela Dam is capable of producing 14.959 billion kWh of electricity per annum.

7. Almendra Dam in Spain is another amazing dam

Almendra dam in Salamanca, Spain dispersing water
Source: Dario/Wikimedia Commons

One of Spain’s tallest structures, the Almendra Dam, also known as Villarino Dam, is located in the country’s province of Salamanca.

Impounding the Tormes river, this concrete gravity arch dam is part of the hydroelectric system known as the Duero Drops. The Duero Drops system is composed of five dams from Spain and three other dams nearby Portugal.

The spillway seen in the photo below can disperse water at a rate of 3,039 cubic meters per second.

8. The Itaipu Dam in Brazil is enormous

13 of the World's Most Fascinating Dams
Source: Deni Williams / Flickr

This fascinating hydroelectric dam stretches 25,981 feet (7,919 mt) along the border of Brazil and Paraguay, impounding the Parana river.

It beats the Three Gorges Dam in terms of power output at an average of 89.5 TWh per annum by using 20×700 MW Francis turbines. Ten of the turbines generate power for Paraguay, while the other ten bring power to Brazil.

Itaipu Dam is, in fact, a series of four dams: a concrete wing dam, a main concrete dam, a rock-fill dam, and an earth-fill dam.

Impressively, the immense volume of concrete used in constructing the dam was properly cured using large refrigeration units equivalent to 50,000 deep freezers.

Another mind-blowing fact about this dam is that the Guaira Falls, once known as the world’s most amazing water feature, was submerged underwater when the Itaipu reservoir was filled. The Guaira Falls stood twice the height of Niagara falls and surged twice as much water.

9. The Atatürk Dam in Turkey is an impressive piece of engineering too

Panoramic view of Ataturk dam in Turkey
Source: Ben Blender/Wikimedia Commons

Located on the Euphrates river, the Atatürk Dam is the largest in Turkey and ranks sixth among the largest earth-and-rock-filled embankment dams in the world. It is the centerpiece of the 22 dams that exist on the Euphrates and the Tigris, which comprise the integrated sectors of the Southeastern Anatolia Project, or GAP in Turkish (Güney Doğu Anadolu Projesi).

The Atatürk reservoir has a capacity of 48.7 cubic kilometers of water and equipped with 8×300 MW Francis turbines, which generate 8,900 GWh of electrical power per annum. The construction of the dam wiped out many important historical sites, including the birthplace of the Ancient Greek poet Lucian.

10. Thousands of animals were relocated to build the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe

Kariba dam in Africa splurging water out
Source: Manfidza/Creative Commons

One of the largest in Africa, the Kariba Dam supplies 1,626 MW of power to the Copperbelt areas of both Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Impounding the Zambezi river, the Kariba dam is outfitted with 10 types of Francis turbines capable of outputting an average of 6,400 GWh of electrical power per year.

The dam was designed as a double curvature concrete arch dam to effectively resist the 180 cubic kilometers of water pressing against it.

Because of the immense volume of water from the created Kariba reservoir, more than 6,000 animals had to be rescued by Operation Noah as the Kariba Gorge was flooded.

11.The Kerr Dam in the USA can produce a lot of energy

Dispersing of water at Kerr dam
Source: Martina Nolte, Lizenz / Creative Commons

Designed for producing hydroelectricity, the Kerr Dam also serves wildlife resource, forest conservation, and public recreational uses.

By impounding the Flathead River, the dam is capable of producing 426 GWh of electricity per annum.

It is one of the two PPL Montana dams located west of the Continental Divide, where the Flathead river empties into the Clark Fork River, which subsequently empties into the Columbia River.

Finally, the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean.

12. The Gariep Dam in South Africa

Water splurging out of Gariep dam
Source: Nic Roets/Wikimedia Commons

The Gariep Dam was designed to be a hybrid gravity-arch dam as the gorge is too wide for a full arch.

Gravity abutments are formed using flank walls then the design gradually arches at the center of the dam. It impounds the Orange river and creates the Gariep reservoir with a maximum capacity of 5,340,00 megaliters. 899 GWh of electrical power is produced by the dam annually using 4×90 MW turbines.

13. Loch Mullardoch Dam in Scotland has an interesting design

fascinating dams mullardoch dam
Source: Marc/Flickr

And last, but by no means least on our list of fascinating dams is Loch Mullardoch Dam in Scotland. Forming a major reservoir in Glen Cannich in the Northwest Highlands, this amazing dam was built in the early-1950s.

Forming part of the Affric-Beauty hydro-electric power scheme, the dam’s reservoir extends for around 8.7 miles (14 km) westward. The dam is the second largest in Scotland and it has a seemingly counterintuitive v-shape with the pointy end of the “v” facing downstream from the reservoir.

The dam is of a mass gravity design (a form of masonry dam) and measures at 157 feet (48 mt) tall. Mass gravity dams rely on their sheer mass, rather than structural form, to hold back the weight of water in its reservoir.

The dam was subject to stabilization works in the 1980s after it was discovered that it was beginning to crack.

There are many other dams around the world with unique and fascinating engineering designs. So, if we’ve missed them then feel free to let us know in the comments.


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