New islands can be natural or artificial. Both can be problematic.

Whether rising steamily from the sea or built strategically for leisure or military use, the emergence of land where once there was only sea can be miraculous, destructive – and complicated.

The World, an artificial island development in Dubai loosely shaped to resemble a map of the Earth, in 2016.  

Photograph by Markus Mainka / Alamy
Published 14 Jul 2021, 14:56 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 13:38 BST

IT WAS the ship’s cook who first noticed something very strange going on. Early on the morning of November 14th 1963, while he was preparing breakfast on the fishing trawler Isleifur II, off the southern coast of Iceland, the smell of sulphur filled his nostrils. Looking out, he spotted a column of dark smoke rising from the surface of the sea. The ship’s captain decided to sail in for a closer look but wisely turned away, after realising it was the eruption of a submarine volcano, belching up smoke and ash from seabed.

Over the next three and a half years, the core of this volcano gradually rose further up from the ocean floor, eventually emerging above the waves to form an island around one square mile in area, with some sections as high as 170 metres above sea level. Scientists named it Surtsey, after Surtr, a fire giant from Norse mythology.

Plants quickly colonised Surtsey, their seeds blown in, washed in and deposited by birds. Then followed birds themselves, and insects. Right from the start, Surtsey was strictly protected. Almost six decades on  it is still an invaluable nature reserve.

Left: Top:

Surtsey's volcanic activity is linked to the Iceland plume, a 'hotspot' of activity linked to the Mid-Atlantic ridge. These submarine eruptions built ash and rock deposits from the sea floor that occasionally reach the surface. Surtsey's eruptions were sustained enough to allow the volcanic matter to rise substantially from the water – some 170 metres – before activity ceased, leaving an island that remains to this day. 

Right: Bottom:

The hard volcanic rock of Surtsey, and the island's initial climb from the sea raising the volcanic vents above the surface, make it resistant to swift erosion. Around a quarter of the island's surface has been weathered away since its creation in 1963.

Photograph by Science History Images / Alamy(Left)(Top)
Photograph by Arctic Images / Alamy(Right)(Bottom)

It’s one of the many islands – either new to the planet or fast disappearing from it – that feature in a recent book called The Age of Islands. The author, Alastair Bonnett, a professor of social geography at University of Newcastle, travelled the world in pursuit of his intriguing subject. He analyses everything from sea forts, lighthouses, prisons and former leper colonies, to island farms, religious retreats, oil rigs, wind turbines, temporary sand-bars, and even vast swathes of floating rubbish.

He visits artificial loch islands in Scotland and man-made polders in the Netherlands. He takes a day trip to the “bonkers” holiday archipelago off the coast of Dubai, known as The World, and later to the amalgamation of former natural islands now housing Hong Kong International Airport. In order to sneak onto Panama’s gated island Ocean Reef, he pretends to be a prospective buyer. (Read: ancient islands older than Stonehenge stump scientists.)

Bad weather prevents him from reaching Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai, a volcanic island which erupted anew in the South Pacific in December 2014. He receives a very rude welcome from Speedo-wearing residents of islets amid a flooded Hungarian quarry. And he doesn't get within a hundred miles of the militarised islands that the Chinese government is building in the South China Sea – where recent tensions in this area have thrown the complex disputes into the spotlight.

“People will pay over the odds to feel the comfort and security of living on an island... In an anxious age, that is a very valuable thing.”

Alastair Bonnett

Why build an island? 

Bonnett pinpoints three key factors driving the construction of artificial islands in the 21st Century. First, and most obvious, are the tourism islands in the Middle East and the South China Sea. Off the coast of Dubai, there is The World, a man-made archipelago of 300 islands representing all the planet’s nations, and the neighbouring palm-shaped Palm Islands. Qatar has The Pearl-Qatar – 18,000 properties on two square miles of new island close to the capital Doha – while Bahrain offers three archipelagos: Durrat Al Bahrain, Northern City and Diyar Al Muharraq. China is building Ocean Flower Island, which will eventually consist of three islets across 380 acres.

Playgrounds of the uber-wealthy, these gated and moated communities offer security and exclusion from the rest of humanity. “People will pay over the odds to feel the comfort and security of living on an island,” Bonnett tells National Geographic UK. “In an anxious age, that is a very valuable thing. This pandemic is likely to accelerate that sense of the value of living on an island, being far away from other people, or being in control of people around you.”

Dubai Palm Jumeirah island, one of the so-called 'Palm Islands', three reclamation developments in the Persian Gulf. Over 10,000 people can live in this development, and such projects physically make a country larger: the Palm Islands developments added 320 miles to Dubai's coast.  

Photograph by Delphotos / Alamy

Bonnett warns that these hugely expensive projects “have a deleterious impact on the environment”. The dredging required to build them destroys marine life; their construction impacts on local erosion and deposit patterns so that rivers silt up or beaches wash away; and the amounts of sand needed to shore them up or provide the concrete atop them is “a terrible trade which is despoiling the planet”, he says.

Many of these islands claim to offer guests an experience of the natural world – a cruel irony not lost on Bonnett. “They usually say they are preserving nature,” he says. “They plant trees and plant coral. But there’s a greenwash going on. It’s one of the paradoxes of the industrial world that we destroy nature and then we want it back. We are hungry for the very thing we've ruined. It’s like killing the thing you love and then bringing back its ghost.”

The second key reason for building islands is perhaps more noble, and it’s here that the Dutch are very much world leaders. Since the Middle Ages these Low Country peoples have been perfecting their methods of reclaiming land from the sea, and exporting their expertise all over the planet. They call it poldering.

The third reason is more sinister, though, and this time it’s the Chinese government that is drawing the world's attention. Under international law, territorial sea extends to 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline, while the exclusive economic zone (protecting fishing, mining and energy exploration rights) extends to 200 nautical miles. For outlying islands, however, the rules are more opaque.

(Read: these 20 islands are an adventurer's dream.)

In the South China Sea, the issue of territorial waters is heating up. Here, some assert China is bending the rules to its own benefit, most notably on a disputed archipelago called the Spratly Islands. Variously occupied over the years by military personnel from Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and China, the islands have no indigenous inhabitants, but they do straddle strategic shipping lanes, and offer rich fishing, and oil and natural gas reserves.

The Spratly Islands, one of three archipelagos in the South China sea, are the scene of some controversial defensive installations by China, using the islands' economically and strategically important position to mark its territorial boundary. Several countries lay claim to the group, leading to disputes over China's developments there. The reclamation prompted the nickname 'the Great Wall of Sand’ by the commander of America's Pacific Fleet – in reference to the large scale dredging and concreting of sand from the seafloor to make the islands habitable. 

Photograph by CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy

According to Bonnett, the Chinese are attempting to take military control of the Spratlys, turning them into an “audacious forward placement in a new cold war”, in an aim to control all of the South China Sea. “The Spratly Islands are the aces in a high-stakes game of geopolitical poker,” he says.

Most militarised of all is Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Jiao in Chinese). According to the Centre for Strategic & International Studies, this 274-hectare ragged coral reef has been reinforced with a runway, a naval harbour, aircraft hangars, missile launchers and army barracks.

Already, militarisation of the region has mutilated once pristine islets, cays, reefs and atolls. Bonnett fears international conflict is inevitable.

“If any place is looking like the site of the next world war, it is the South China Sea. It has a huge amount of resources, and trillions of dollars of trade pass through it. Seven countries all claim bits of the sea. But China has created a de facto control over the whole sea by building artificial islands.”

Bonnett believes an urgent change in international law is required to prevent such aggressive moves, and to protect the ocean environment. “In the South China Sea, you see [the Chinese] hoovering up the sea bed. All the crustaceans, the coral, the sand – everything is ground into paste and chucked onto the island to build it up. Where there was a coral reef of incredible diversity, they create dead zones.”

Laws of nature

The laws on island ownership raise some intriguing questions. Especially when it comes to the volcanic formation of new islands – such as Surtsey in the 1960s. As Bonnett explains, should new islands appear in international waters, it’s not clear which nations might legally claim them.

The Ocean Flower Islands, off the coast of the Yangpu Peninsula, China. The development, consisting of three artificial islands housing resorts and luxury hotels, leisure parks and a commercial district, cost upwards of £15 billion. 

Photograph by Imaginechina Limited / Alamy

Manihi Atoll, in French Polynesia, is one of many small, natural atoll settlements – some with a population in the hundreds – that are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme storm systems exacerbated by climate change. The highest point on the atoll system is 9 metres above sea level. 

Photograph by Galaxiid / Alamy

In the last hundred years, at least 25 new islands have risen out of the oceans, the vast majority formed from submarine volcanoes, but many only short-lived. Aside from Surtsey, the most substantial and longest-living are Anak Krakatoa (in the sea between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra) and Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai (in the Tonga archipelago of Polynesia). Usually, such islands are snapped up by the nearest sovereign state before the lava has even cooled.

But what if a large island was to erupt out of the central Pacific Ocean, for example? Surely this would lead to more than a squabble between the surrounding dominant nations? Bonnett suggests that “any country powerful enough to defend its seizure” would claim the territory.

A floating future

Territorial expansion doesn’t always require physical land. One of the most intriguing forms of island building is a phenomenon called seasteading which normally involves constructing dwellings atop huge floating platforms. A leading organisation in the field is the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute. Founded in 2008 by Patri Friedman (grandson of free-market economist Milton Friedman) and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, it attempted to build a floating island within the warm territorial waters of French Polynesia before local politics and protesters poured cold water on the project. The Seasteading Institute told National Geographic UK their floating island project was currently on hold. (Read: floating cities could ease the world's housing crunch.)

While the wealthy and the powerful construct new islands, inevitably it’s the poor and the powerless who must watch their own islands gradually disappear beneath the waves. Bonnett presents a moving paean to island nations bearing the brunt of rising sea levels such as The Maldives, Palau, Fiji, Tuvalu, Seychelles, Kiribati, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.

(Related: rising seas give residents a choice – relocate or elevate.)

“Island people can’t run for the hills, so they'll [eventually] have to live in neighbouring countries,” he points out. “The Maldives have already been talking to India about the transportation of some of their population. But in Tonga they told me: ‘We’re not going anywhere. We have nowhere to go.’ People are very rooted in their homelands, particularly when they’ve been living on islands for hundreds of years. People in Tonga live with continuous danger of flooding, tsunamis, earthquakes, storms… but that is their world. Leaving the islands just isn’t contemplated.”

Part of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, Surtsey today in an important nature reserve, and in 2004 was found to be host to puffin nests. The island may survive for many centuries, or as little as one.  

Photograph by imageBROKER / Alamy

So large is our planet that no one can be certain exactly how many islands currently exist on it. In the 2007 book A World of Islands: an Island Studies Reader, Christian Depraetere and Arthur Dahl have a good stab at the problem, estimating that there are 680 billion islands larger than 0.1 square metres in size. “Just enough for a bird or a child to have a rest on,” they say. This figure includes 5,675 islands larger than 10 square kilometres (Britain, for example), but also 8.8 million islets, and 672 million rocks.

As Bonnett insists: “Trying to count all the world’s islands may be a fool’s errand.” It’s an errand further complicated by rising sea levels which swallow up some islands scientists have seen uninhabited islands washed away in Hawaii, the Arctic and Japan but at the same time create others: our own Cornish archipelago, the Isles of Scilly for example, most likely used to be one single island until the English Channel inundated the central plain between its hills – possibly between 400 and 500AD – resulting in the current 145 islands and islets.

Even Surtsey, the volcanic island that appeared in 1963 off the coast of Iceland, will eventually slip beneath the waves. But not for a very long time yet. Scientists estimate its hard lava will keep it above the waves of the north Atlantic for many centuries to come. Just as well for the flora and fauna that has now colonised it.

Dominic Bliss is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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