Society - Culture
By: - at July 25, 2013

15 Most Protected Areas in the World

Although it is tempting to think that the world is on the brink of global peace, pragmatism dictates that caution is always advised. Especially in an age of drones, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons, the need for ample protection is not new. It hearkens back centuries, to the first primitive stockades erected by neolithic humans. As technology improves, security has to improve with it. With millenia of development, what are the most well protected areas in the world today?

15)  National Redoubt, Switzerland
Perhaps the greatest example of a protected area in terms of sheer scale is the National Redoubt. Although first started in the 1880s, it wasn't until the eve of World War II in 1935 that it was significantly expanded and upgraded. The reasons for this were clear: the threat of invasion by the Third Reich was a clear and present danger. To protect Switzerland against aggression, the concept of a National Redoubt was born. As the country could not hope to win a direct confrontation, especially once it was surrounded from all sides by Axis countries by 1941, the military leadership of Switzerland sought alternative solutions.

Fort Airolo National Redoubt, Switzerland
 By Thomas Philipp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The network of fortifications was designed to create an impenetrable fortress protecting core Swiss cantons and allowing the Confederacy to retain a significant part of its territory, centered in the High Alps. The Redoubt integrated mountains as natural barriers against enemy forces, with weak points protected by camouflaged bunkers outfitted with the heaviest available weapons, from machine gun emplacements to high caliber cannons. In the event of invasion, all access to the region would be denied by destroying the bridges and tunnels connecting it to the world, sealing Switzerland away from the aggressor with its army intact. Best of all? The Redoubt still exists to this day and is routinely reviewed to ensure that it will function in a time of need.

14)  The Safe House, Poland
When you adjust for scale, there exists a location that can easily be classified as one of the world's most protected areas, even though it doesn't provide security for an entire nation or gold bullion. The Safe House, located in Warsaw, has only one goal: to provide the ultimate protection for the family that lives in it. To the casual observer, the building is little more than an over-sized concrete cube. However, although it does look like a bunker, it's not intended to rein the inhabitants in.

City of Warsaw:
City of Warsaw, Poland

The secret lies in the dozens of mobile walls built on a lightweight steel framework. The building can fold back large sections of its external shell and open the inside of the house to the garden. Whenever the walls open, they draw back and connect to the external concrete wall surrounding the building. The only entry point is through the courtyard formed by these walls and the reinforced entrance door. During the night, the walls fold creating a concrete cube that provides near perfect protection from any intruders. For practical reasons the living room is not shielded with moving walls, but a reinforced steel shutter. All things considered, it's one of the most protected areas in the world if you're not looking for a government bunker, but a perfectly safe house for your family.

13)  Korean Demilitarized Zone, Korean Peninsula
The end of the Korean War in 1953, or rather, the cease-fire that was signed that year, created one of the most protected areas on the planet. Crossing the 38th parallel, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is relatively small: it's 4 km wide and just about 250 km long. However, it is also the most militarized border in the world, with both the North and South Koreans maintaining large troop contingents on both sides of the border, ready to resume hostilities at a moment's notice. How are soldiers are involved? The Korean People's Army in the north has at least 1.1 million men in active service, with 8.2 million in reserve, making it one of the largest armies in the world. The South can count on 639,000 troops of its own, 2.9 million in reserves, and a permanent garrison of 28,500 United States servicemen stationed in Korea.

Bunkers in the Demilitarized Zone:
Bunker in Demilitarized Zone on Korean Peninsula
 By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In terms of infrastructure, the Korean DMZ is heavily fortified on both sides, from simple earthen defenses to concrete bunkers lining the edges of the zone. Anti-tank barriers are a common sight, as are cul-de-sacs and landscaping designed to create killing zones for enemy forces. It goes without saying that both Korean states maintain extensive artillery regiments at the border, intended to overwhelm the enemy with fire should the armistice be broken and full out war resume. That's the scariest part: the armistice is a literal cease-fire agreement. Since 1953, neither Korea recognized the other as a sovereign nation, meaning that they remain in a permanent state of war.

12)  Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, United States
The nuclear bunker that houses NORAD is one of the most iconic military installations in modern culture, featured in dozens of movies and TV series. The reasons for this popularity are simple: it's one of the most well protected areas in the United States and possibly even the world. The main bunker situated under Cheyenne Mountain is designed to withstand a 30 megaton nuclear explosion within a two kilometer radius. For reference, the largest nuclear explosion tested by the United States, Castle Bravo, was performed with 15 megatons. The only nuclear weapon that would be able to defeat Cheyenne Mountain's defenses would be a copy of the Soviet Union's Tsar Bomba: the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated, at between 50 and 100 megatons. It was also the only one of its kind.

NORAD heavy blast doors:
Cheyenne Mountain Colorado NORAD blast doors

This protection is achieved by a number of factors. The most important is, of course, the mountain and the access tunnel that runs through it. By passing through the entire mountain, the shock wave does not concentrate at any point of the structure. The entrance is protected by a 25-ton heavy blast door, while interior facilities (which include everything necessary to survive the apocalypse) are specifically constructed to protect against EMP and damage caused by nuclear weapons or natural catastrophes. And just in case the bombardment is followed by an invasion, the Cheyenne Mountain complex also benefits from multiple military units stationed in the area and the facility itself.

11)  Moscow Metro, Russia
One of the largest metro networks in the world, the Moscow underground train network was one of the crown jewels of the Soviet Union. Extensively upgraded and improved during the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over the heads of both the Union and the United States, it became one of the largest and most secure nuclear shelters in the world. Stations built during the Cold War were specifically buried deeper underground to protect against the bomb's shock wave and subsequent quakes, while tunnels and station entrances were retrofitted with airlocks and blast doors to be sealed in case of an attack.

Metro Station in Moscow, Russia:
Metro Station Moscow, Russia

Although the Cold War is long over and the Soviet Union is no more, the vast Muscovite network remains an important part of Russian culture and one of the most protected locations in the world. After all, it is supposed to protect millions of people living in the city should the Apocalypse come knocking and allow them to survive for extended periods of time. To this end, the metro network connects to hundreds of facilities that allow for a continued supply of fresh water and electricity, even if the city above is laid to ruin.

10)  Federal Reserve Bank of New York Building, New York, United States
While the U.S. Bullion Depository (incorrectly referred to as Fort Knox in common parlance) is the most widely known treasury in the United States, often used as shorthand for security and protection, it is not the largest and most well protected location of its type in the U.S.A. That tile belongs to the headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It is currently the largest reported gold treasury in the world, holding an estimated 25% of worldwide gold reserves. This is not just American gold, however. The Fed also stockpiles gold for other countries, entirely for free (only handling the gold requires a fee).

Federal Reserve Bank Building New York City, NY

As can be expected, the building boasts impressive protection. For starters, the building's foundation is built directly on Manhattan Island's bedrock to support over 6,700 tons of gold in storage. All access, even for routine maintenance, is overseen personally by three members of the New York Fed staff. The facilities are protected by a 90 ton cylinder steel door that creates an impenetrable seal when closed, protecting the gold from danger. Coupled with around the clock monitoring and a dedicated Federal Reserve police force, it certainly ranks as one of the most protected areas in the world.

9)  Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
While it's not intended to protect civilians or infrastructure, the Global Seed Vault remains one of the most important well protected locations in the entire world. Opened in 2006, it is a seed bank, designed to create optimal storage conditions to protect against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks. In layman's terms, the facility is meant to prevent complete eradication of plant genetic material through human action and allow for its retrieval in emergencies. To complete this, numerous measures were taken to ensure that the contents of the vault would not be exposed to danger.

Mountains in Svalbard, Norway:
Svalbard Norway

For starters, the facility is located inside a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen Island. The area provides exceptional protection from natural catastrophes: there is very little tectonic activity and the permafrost ensures that the temperature won't exceed -3 degrees Celsius, even in the case of equipment failure inside the vault. The elevation (130 meters above sea level) guarantees that even if the ice caps melt, the facility will not be flooded. The remote location has its disadvantages: the facility does not have a permanent crew. However, the passive protective measures are more than enough to protect its invaluable contents, even for centuries if need be. An interesting note is that the facility also incorporates a work of art, as mandated by Norwegian law. This massive light installation is designed to double as a beacon, indicating the location of the facility.

8)  ADX Florence, Colorado, United States
The most secure prison in the world is located in Florence, Colorado. Designated with containing the most dangerous and/or violent criminals in the United States, it is designed to isolate inmates from the world and minimize the risk of escape. For starters, the entire facility is located above ground, outfitted with hundreds of security devices like motion detectors and CCTV cameras supplemented by over 1,400 remote controlled steel doors. However, the most secure locations are the prison cells themselves, designed, like the rest of the facility, to make it impossible to determine your location inside the facility and make any attempts at making an escape impossible due to disorientation.

ADX Florence, Colorado Prison Cell

These chambers are where inmates spent over 22 hours each day, leaving them only for the mandated five hours of physical exercise per week. The cells are mostly made of poured concrete, which is molded to provide a bed, an immovable desk, and a thin window that only shows the roof of the building and the sky. Amenities are designed from stainless steel specifically to make tampering impossible: showers operate on timers while the toilet, sink, and water fountain are combined into one. The cell is sealed with regular bars and an additional translucent vestibule to provide isolation. Even when they are exercising, the inmates are kept in isolation, in an exercise pit designed to look as featureless as possible. Escape is quite likely impossible.

7)  Pionen, Sweden
Often overlooked in the listings of most protected locations in the world, Pionen is one of Sweden's most secure locations. Originally designed as a defense center meant to protect the government in case of nuclear war, it is currently operated by Bahnhof, a Swedish Internet service provider, which converted it into a data center. Servers stored inside the bunker are among the safest in the world. For starters, like Cheyenne Mountain, the entire complex is buried beneath the White Mountains (Vita Bergen) in Stockholm, the country's capital.

Bahnhof Pionen Sweden
 By Holger.Ellgaard (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Access to the complex is secured by a 40 cm thick blast door, accessed through a single entrance corridor. That's not all. On top of the extensive network of tunnels and chambers built into the granite rock of the mountains, it also features facilities that would plausibly allow anyone within the shelter to survive a nuclear holocaust. These include greenhouses, a large salt water fish tank, and backup power generators intended to power the data center should external supply of electricity fail. All things considered, it's definitely one of the most secure locations in the world and certainly its most protected data center.

6)  Bank of England Gold Vault, London, England
Much like the Federal Reserve Bank in the United States, the Bank of England stores gold for the United Kingdom and numerous other countries in a vast underground installation buried beneath London's busy streets. The complex network of tunnels and vaults beneath the headquarters of the Bank has an estimated floor-space larger than the city's tallest office building, Tower 42. The largest of these are decommissioned wells that once supplied the city with water and now hold the world's second largest gold storage facility.

Bank of England Gold Vault London England

The concrete-lined vaults are specifically designed to withstand direct bombing and did, in fact, serve as air raid shelters for the employees of the Bank of England during the Blitzkrieg offensive in World War II. Security protocols that protect the contents of the vaults have been constantly refined since then and kept under strict secrecy. Very few facts are known about the protective measures employed by the Bank. What is known, however, is that access is granted only with the use of a triad of three foot long keys and a sophisticated voice recognition system. Despite urban legends, the security systems implemented in the vaults of the Bank of England have proved to be adequate so far, with no record of a theft in the entire modern history of the bank.

5)  Area 51, Nevada, United States
No list of the world's most protected areas can do without a mention of perhaps the most iconic military base in modern culture. Featured prominently throughout media, especially in science fiction, it remains one of the most mysterious installations operated by the United States military. Originally established in 1942 as the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, it became the Groom Lake test facility in 1955, at first to develop the Lockheed U-2 spy plane project. The remote area and natural features of the terrain made it a natural candidate for one of the most secret projects of that time. The secrecy continues and to this day no reliable information is available as to what actually happens at Area 51.

Area 51 Restricted Area
 Made by X51 (Flickr: Web: [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To enforce secrecy, the area surrounding the lake hosting the base is permanently off-limits to air traffic, both civilian and military. Land access is strictly controlled, with networks of CCTV cameras securing the perimeter and armed patrols detaining unauthorized persons. Mentions of the base are routinely redacted from declassified materials. The secrecy surrounding the military base is so great that in 1974, when the Skylab astronauts accidentally photographed the site, the CIA directly intervened by requesting that NASA ensure the that photographs become classified. No other location in the entire world is considered as secret as Area 51. The Groom Lake facility can certainly be classified as the world's most elusive, if not most protected area.

4)  Granite Mountain Records Vault, Utah, United States
Located in the state of Utah, the Records Vault is one of the largest archive facilities in the world, operated by the Church of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon Church places a heavy emphasis on genealogy in order to allow adherents of the faith to perform baptism by proxy for their deceased relatives. The Granite Mountain facility is specifically designed to provide a controlled, safe environment for preserving often priceless genealogical source materials for posterity. The installation is built into the side of Little Cottonwood Canyon, delving over 180m into the side of the mountain.

Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah:
Little Cottonwood Caynon Utah
 By Scott CAtron (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The interior facilities are divided into two sections. The first one houses the shipping and receiving areas, as well as microfilm processing stations, and administrative offices, protected by nearly 100m of solid rock. The vault proper is located deeper into the mountain, protected by more than 200m of granite. Carved into the rock are six chambers with carefully regulated conditions to provide optimal temperature and humidity for microfilmed materials. Each chamber is filled with steel banks three meters in height, designed to protect the contents against damage. The entire facility is rumored to be able to withstand a nuclear detonation, although thankfully, this feature hasn't been tested thus far.

3)  Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City
Popularized by the books of Dan Brown, the vast archives of the Vatican and the Papacy are widely considered to be the most secure and secretive areas in the entire world. While indeed the Vatican Archives cannot be accessed by unauthorized people, their contents can and are made available to scientists and scholars that are approved, based on the purpose for which access to archival documentation is required. The misconception that the archives are kept totally secret from the world stems from the naming, which uses an archaic meaning of the word secret, meaning private, rather than confidential, as the Vatican Archives' website explains.

Vatican City in Italy:
Vatican City Rome Italy

The archives themselves are designed with long term storage in mind. Since the papacy holds documents that date back to the 12th century and earlier, the storage facilities are designed to store materials in carefully regulated conditions, ensuring that they will survive centuries more. The primary facility is located in a subterranean bunker, opened in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. It offers more than 31,000 cubic meters and 43,000 linear meters of storage with security and climate control provided by cutting edge technology. Protection from threats is supplemented by members of the Swiss Guard, who are sworn to protect the Pope and the Vatican.

2)  RAF Menwith Hill, England
The development of high tech espionage was not ignored by Great Britain. The Royal Air Force station in Harrogate, Menwith Hill, is host to one of the largest, if not the largest, electronic monitoring stations in the entire world. Often featured in media due to its distinctive white radar domes, Menwith Hill was originally established in 1954 to provide the West with a means to monitor radio communications in the Eastern Bloc. With the end of the Cold War, one would expect that such a base would be shut down, but Menwith Hill continued operation. In close cooperation with the United States National Security Agency, it allegedly became a vital part of a global communications monitoring effort.

RAF Menwith Hill England

Regardless of the veracity of these claims, Menwith Hill remains one of the most protected areas in the world. Access to state of the art communications monitoring equipment allows the base staff to track and identify threats world wide, while the British 451st Intelligence Squadron and the United States 421st Air Base Group provide physical protection for the already impressively fortified military installation. Of course, the highly publicized focus of the base has led to a number of controversies and dozens of protests over its operation, first focused on nuclear proliferation and strategic missile defense, then on the alleged invasion of privacy through communications monitoring.

1)  Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center, Virginia, United States
The vast network of civil defense shelters and military installations designed to withstand a nuclear attack are the legacy of the Cold War. Mount Weather is no exception. Originally a 19th century weather station, Mount Weather was established in the state of Virginia as a crucial link of the United States continuity of government plans in 1959, when the underground facility was designed to house the highest civilian and military officials of the United States in the event of a national disaster.

Mount Weather Virginia FEMA

The facility is currently operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Very little information is available on the underground facilities of Mount Weather, a trait common to all facilities involved in ensuring the survival of the American government. What is known, however, is that the bunker offers over 55,000 square meters of space for its inhabitants. A 1991 issue of Time magazine featured an interview with a retired engineer that worked at the facility. According to his statements, the bunker is a sprawling underground installation will all the facilities necessary to ensure the survival of the American state, including studios for broadcasting the government's messages to the American citizens. If there's one location that can be described as the most well protected area in the world, it's definitely Mount Weather.

Whether keeping something in, keeping something out, or just designed to protect a section of the population in case of emergency, intensely-secured areas can be found all over the world. Of course, there's one caveat: these are only the known installations. There may be dozens of other even better protected areas all over the world. For example, the Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, have a particular penchant for closed cities that officially do not exist or exist in a much different capacity than they do on paper. There are hundreds of other countries, all with their own secret military bases and their own highly protected areas.





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