How Are Underwater Tunnels Constructed?

Underwater tunnels are engineering marvels that connect islands, cities, and even entire countries, making transportation and trade more efficient while pushing the boundaries of human ingenuity. These submerged passageways serve a crucial role in modern infrastructure, allowing people and goods to traverse bodies of water. But how do they build underwater tunnels? In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of underwater tunnel construction, from the initial planning stages to the final connection of tunnel sections. We’ll explore the methods, materials, and technology that make these submerged conduits possible.

how do they build underwater tunnels
Photo by Sung Jin Cho on Unsplash

Planning and Feasibility Assessment

Before the construction of an underwater tunnel begins, a rigorous planning and feasibility assessment is essential. This phase involves evaluating the geological, environmental, and economic factors to determine whether the project is viable. Several key steps are involved:

  1. Site Selection: The first and foremost step is the selection of the tunnel’s location. Engineers and geologists assess the seabed conditions, water depth, and the proximity to the shore. Geological surveys are crucial to understand the stability of the seabed and any potential obstacles.
  2. Environmental Impact Assessment: A thorough analysis of the environmental impact of the tunnel construction is essential. This includes evaluating the effect on marine life, water quality, and the surrounding ecosystems. Mitigation measures are often implemented to minimize any negative consequences.
  3. Geotechnical Studies: Detailed geotechnical studies help in understanding the composition and stability of the seabed. Soil and rock samples are collected, and the data is used to design appropriate tunnel foundations and tunnel boring methods.
  4. Economic Viability: The cost-benefit analysis plays a pivotal role in the project’s feasibility. Economic factors, such as construction costs, maintenance expenses, and potential economic benefits, are considered. Financing options and revenue sources must also be examined.
  5. Regulatory Approvals: Obtaining the necessary permits and approvals from government agencies and environmental organizations is a complex process that must be navigated before construction can commence.

Once all these factors have been carefully considered and addressed, the project moves forward into the construction phase.

Construction Methods for Underwater Tunnels

The construction methods for underwater tunnels vary depending on factors like the water depth, seabed conditions, and the type of tunnel needed. Here, we will explore some of the most common methods used in the creation of underwater tunnels.

  1. Immersed Tube Tunnels (IMT)

    • Trenching: To use this method, builders dig a trench in the riverbed or ocean floor. This trench serves as a guide for the placement of pre-made steel or concrete tubes. The trench is typically dredged or excavated, allowing for precise alignment.
    • Tube Sections: The tunnel consists of multiple pre-fabricated tube sections, typically made of steel or concrete. These sections are constructed in a dry dock or a casting yard near the shoreline, ensuring quality control and precision. The sections are designed with a watertight seal to prevent water ingress.
    • Sinking the Tubes: Once the tube sections are ready, they are floated to the tunnel site using tugboats and then carefully sunk into the trench. Accurate placement is crucial to ensure the alignment and structural integrity of the tunnel.
    • Connecting Sections: After the tubes are in position, workers connect the sections together. Specialized equipment is used to create a sealed joint, ensuring water cannot penetrate the tunnel. The connections must be strong enough to withstand water pressure and other environmental forces.
    • Backfilling: Once the tunnel sections are correctly positioned and joined, a thick layer of rock or gravel is placed over the tunnel to secure it and protect it from external forces. The backfill material also helps to prevent erosion around the tunnel.
    • Water Removal: The final step involves pumping out any remaining water from the tunnel, creating a dry, sealed passageway. The tunnel is now ready for use.
  2. Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs)

    • Introduction to TBMs: Tunnel Boring Machines are giant cylindrical machines equipped with cutting heads. They are used to excavate tunnels through various materials, including rock and soil. TBMs are a popular choice for underwater tunnels, particularly when the water depth is too great for other methods.
    • Operation: TBMs work by advancing into the seabed while simultaneously removing the excavated material. They create the tunnel’s walls by placing pre-fabricated tunnel segments, often made of concrete, as they move forward. These segments interlock to form a complete tunnel lining.
    • Sealing the Tunnel: Similar to the immersed tube method, the tunnel segments placed by the TBM are designed to form a watertight seal. This is critical for preventing water ingress into the tunnel.
    • Backup Systems: Behind the TBM, a series of backup systems ensure that the tunnel remains stable during excavation. These systems include conveyor belts for removing excavated material, grouting machines to fill voids in the surrounding rock or soil, and systems for transporting workers and materials.
    • Control and Monitoring: TBMs are operated by skilled personnel who continuously monitor the machine’s performance and the tunnel’s integrity. Advanced technology is used to manage factors like pressure differentials and ground settlement.
  3. Cut-and-Cover Tunnels

    • Applicability: Cut-and-cover tunnels are commonly used in relatively shallow waters, where the tunnel can be built by excavating a trench in the seabed, constructing the tunnel structure within it, and then backfilling to cover it.
    • Construction Process: A trench is excavated in the seabed, and the tunnel is constructed within this trench. This can be done using a variety of construction techniques, such as open cut (when the tunnel is exposed during construction) or immersed tube (as previously described).
    • Materials: The tunnel structure is typically made of reinforced concrete. During construction, it is essential to ensure that the tunnel structure is stable and waterproof.
    • Access Shafts: Cut-and-cover tunnels may also require access shafts on land or in the water, which allow workers to enter the tunnel for maintenance and inspection.

Materials Used in Underwater Tunnel Construction

The materials used in underwater tunnel construction are selected to withstand the unique challenges posed by underwater environments, such as corrosion, water pressure, and the need for structural integrity. The choice of materials often depends on factors like the tunnel construction method and the specific location. Here are the primary materials used:

  1. Concrete: Concrete is a widely used material in underwater tunnel construction due to its durability, strength, and ability to resist the corrosive effects of seawater. High-performance concrete mixes, sometimes with additives to enhance resistance to chloride penetration and increase durability, are commonly used for tunnel segments and linings.
  2. Steel: Steel is another essential material for underwater tunnel construction, especially in immersed tube tunnels. It is used for the fabrication of tunnel sections and for reinforcement within concrete structures. Stainless steel is often preferred for its corrosion resistance.
  3. Special Coatings: Many underwater tunnels employ special coatings or linings to protect against corrosion. Epoxy coatings and cathodic protection systems are commonly used to extend the lifespan of steel and concrete structures.
  4. Rock and Gravel Backfill: When creating immersed tube tunnels, a thick layer of rock or gravel is placed over the tunnel sections. This backfill material provides stability and protection, ensuring the tunnel remains secure on the seabed.
  5. Sealants and Gaskets: To ensure watertight connections and seals in immersed tube tunnels, specialized sealants and gaskets are used. These prevent water from entering the tunnel sections at the joints.
  6. Reinforcement Materials: In cut-and-cover tunnels, reinforcement materials like steel rebars are used to enhance the strength and stability of the tunnel structure.

Technology and Innovation in Underwater Tunnel Construction

The construction of underwater tunnels has evolved significantly over the years, thanks to technological advancements and innovative engineering solutions. Here are some key technologies and innovations that have transformed the industry:

  1. Advanced Tunnel Boring Machines: The development of high-powered, computer-controlled Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) has greatly improved the efficiency and accuracy of tunnel excavation. These machines can work in a wide range of geological conditions and are particularly suitable for deep underwater tunnels.
  2. Remote Sensing and Imaging: Modern geophysical and hydrographic survey techniques, including sonar, acoustic imaging, and laser scanning, have made it possible to conduct detailed seabed assessments and monitor tunnel construction in real-time. These technologies enhance safety and precision.
  3. Drones and Underwater Robots: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) are used for inspecting and maintaining underwater tunnel structures. These technologies reduce the need for human divers and enhance safety.
  4. 3D Modeling and Simulation: Advanced computer modeling and simulation tools enable engineers to create accurate 3D models of the tunnel, predict structural behavior, and plan for various construction scenarios. This technology aids in optimizing design and construction processes.
  5. Environmental Monitoring Systems: Real-time monitoring systems are installed to track environmental conditions during construction. This allows for immediate responses to changes in water quality, marine life, or unforeseen events.
  6. Tunnel Segment Fabrication Technologies: Precise and automated methods are employed to fabricate tunnel segments with consistent quality. This ensures that tunnel sections fit together seamlessly and maintain their structural integrity.

Challenges and Environmental Considerations

Underwater tunnel construction presents numerous challenges and environmental considerations that must be carefully managed. These include:

  1. Environmental Impact: Construction activities can have a significant impact on marine ecosystems. Strategies to mitigate these effects often include relocating marine life, implementing pollution control measures, and monitoring water quality.
  2. Seabed Stability: The stability of the seabed is a critical factor, as any settlement or shifting can compromise the integrity of the tunnel. Geotechnical studies and advanced monitoring systems are used to ensure the seabed remains stable during and after construction.
  3. Corrosion and Maintenance: The constant exposure to water, salt, and the marine environment can lead to corrosion of tunnel structures. Regular maintenance and protective measures are necessary to extend the tunnel’s lifespan.
  4. Safety: Underwater tunnel construction is inherently risky, with potential hazards such as flooding, pressure differentials, and equipment malfunctions. Strict safety protocols and contingency plans are essential.

Notable Underwater Tunnels Around the World

  1. Channel Tunnel (Eurotunnel): Connecting the United Kingdom and France beneath the English Channel, the Channel Tunnel is one of the most famous underwater tunnels globally. It is a remarkable example of immersed tube tunnel construction.
  2. Seikan Tunnel: Located in Japan, the Seikan Tunnel links the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. It is one of the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnels, with sections submerged underwater.
  3. Eurasia Tunnel: This tunnel in Istanbul, Turkey, connects the European and Asian sides of the city beneath the Bosphorus Strait. It was constructed using a combination of cut-and-cover and immersed tube methods.
  4. Lærdal Tunnel: The Lærdal Tunnel in Norway is one of the world’s longest road tunnels. It is famous for its subsea section that passes beneath the Sognefjord.
  5. Big Dig Project (The Central Artery/Tunnel Project): In Boston, Massachusetts, the Big Dig Project involved a vast network of tunnels, including the Ted Williams Tunnel, which connects the city to Logan International Airport.


The construction of underwater tunnels is a complex and awe-inspiring endeavor that relies on meticulous planning, advanced technology, and innovative engineering solutions. Whether through immersed tube tunnels, tunnel boring machines, or cut-and-cover methods, engineers have developed a variety of techniques to meet the unique challenges presented by underwater environments.

These tunnels are not only engineering marvels but also critical pieces of infrastructure that enhance transportation and promote economic development. As technology continues to advance, we can expect even more remarkable feats in underwater tunnel construction, further connecting the world and expanding the possibilities of human mobility and trade. However, it is important to remember that, along with these advancements, there is an increasing need for careful environmental management and safety measures to ensure that these structures benefit society without harming the planet.

In a world that demands connectivity and accessibility, underwater tunnels are shining examples of what human ingenuity can achieve when faced with the challenges of the deep.