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‘Big Bertha’ blocked by mysterious mass

Big Bertha hard at work. Credit: Washington State Dept. of Transportation

Big Bertha hard at work. Credit: Washington State Dept. of Transportation

They call it…The Object.

A mysterious mass deep under the ground in Seattle, Washinton, has put a stop to Bertha, the world’s largest tunneling machine, and engineers are baffled.

The mostly automated Bertha is 300 feet long and five stories tall, making it the largest tunnel-boring machine on the planet. It was brought to Seattle to help with the construction of a two-mile-long, $3.1 billion highway tunnel along the city’s western edge.

Bertha should be able to punch a hole through anything, and yet two weeks after first contact with the Object, engineers are no closer to knowing what stands in the machine’s way.

Much like a mole, Bertha is pretty much operating blind, and engineers have been unable to get in front to see what’s blocking her. “What we’re focusing on now is creating conditions that will allow us to enter the chamber behind the cutter head and see what the situation is,” said project manager Chris Dixon.

In the meantime, speculation on the Object’s nature is running rampant. People have suggested everything ice age boulders to downed alien spacecraft and dragon eggs. One of the more plausible theories is that the obstruction is a piece of old Seattle, swallowed by the mucky waterfront centuries ago. “I’m going to believe it’s a piece of Seattle history until proven otherwise,” Seattle Public Library curator Ann Ferguson told The New York Times.

If the Object cannot be broken up underground, a new excavation would need to begin. Though progress has now been halted for weeks, Dixon says that work is continuing at the ends of the tunnel. The highway is scheduled to open by late 2015.

With any luck the dragons will have hatched by then and moved on.