The Fourth Tallest Man-made Structure Isn’t a Building at All

TV towers and power station chimneys are some less well-known record-breakers in the history of super-tall structures

TV Tower
A TV tower on Burnt Island in Fife, Scotland, reaches just 410 feet -- but others of its kind top 2,000 Malcom Fife/Corbis

The Burj Khalifa’s 2,722 feet gives it the undisputed and well-recognized status as the tallest man-made structure in the world. But creating a list of superlative structures can get a little tricky: are you are counting true buildingsFree-standing structures? Those with some additional support? If sheer height is your only concern, then dozens of TV towers actually make it on the list. The tallest one, and the fourth-tallest structure in the world, is in Blanchard, N. Dak., writes Casey Tolan for re:form on Medium.

The TV tower is 2,063 feet tall. (The Burj Khalifa tops out at 2,722.) Tolan writes:

The KVLY tower rises out of the flat countryside like a needle. It’s so narrow that it’s just a vertical line on the horizon until you get close up. Built in 1963, it was the tallest structure in the world for many years.

To get a hint of how the red-and-white striped tower looks in person, visit Ray Cunningham’s Flickr photo set. A service elevator can take maintenance workers up to the base of the antenna on top, a height of about 1,950 feet, Doug Jenson, a chief engineer for NBC told NPR in 2010.

Low population density and flat, wide-open spaces in many parts of the U.S. mean that the country can boast 16 towers that have passed the 2,000 foot mark; any taller and the Federal Aviation Administration requires special permission to build. Tolan notes that in the U.S. dozens more guyed broadcast towers—towers supported by guy wires—are just a few feet shy of 2,000 feet.

The official tall-building record-keepers, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, doesn’t even keep track of broadcast towers supported by guy wires. These are essentially tethers that keep the towers standing. The KVLY tower has some, which knock it off the free-standing structure list, but also allow it to reach farther into the sky. Tolan writes:

[In] sheer number of supertall structures, the U.S. beats all contenders. Chalk it up to our national love of the television and the wide-open topography of much of the country. Most of the tallest towers are situated in rural, flat locations. Some are strategically placed to cover multiple cities, and others need to be so high because of low population densities.

Among the tallest structures—guyed, supported, carrying buildings or not—there's another surprise: chimneys at power stations. The tallest one, at 1,377 feet, is in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, at the GRES-2 Power Plant

We can expect buildings to continue to break records, even if the TV towers phase out as our viewing habits change. (Cellphone and wireless data towers are a measly 200 to 300 feet.) Currently, there are buildings in progress and on hold that will dwarf even the Burj Khalifa. 

And as Dubai continues to build taller buildings, maybe they’ll come up with a solution for a persistent problem they have. Apparently, the Burj Khalifa and the city’s other high-rises were built without a municipal sewage system to handle all the waste. As a result, it’s trucked away, according to Inhabitat. This is not a small issue: Gizmodo calculated that when full, the world’s current tallest building could nearly eight tons (seven metric tons) of poop per day.