In this episode, Cat and Jingyi discuss artificial islands and their role in ocean development. They examine some of the island nations in the Pacific Ocean, such as Kiribati, that are ‘sinking’ due to sea-level-rise and explore how artificial islands might offer such places a solution to this imminent crisis.
Jingyi Sun graduated from Duke in 2020 with a Masters in Environmental Management, in the Coastal Environmental Management stream.
Dr. Lisa Campbell hosts the Conservation and Development series. The series showcases the work of students who produce podcasts as part of their term projects. Lisa introduced a podcast assignment after 16 years of teaching, in an effort to direct student energy and effort to a project that would enjoy a wider audience.
Supplemental material for this episode
Transcript: Artificial Islands
[“Oyster Walts’ theme song]
Lisa Campbell: Hi Listeners, Welcome to Seas the Day. This week we have an episode from our Conservation and Development series. In it, Jingyi Sun and Catherine Morse explore the strange world of artificial islands, including their technical possibilities and financial and political implications. While artificial islands serve multiple purposes, Jingyi and Catherine are interested specifically in how and if artificial islands can help Pacific island nations experiencing sea-level-rise confronting threat of ‘sinking’ to the extent that they become unihabitable. I’ll turn it over to them now.
Cat: Hello everyone, my name is Cat.
Jingyi: And I am Jingyi. Welcome to the “Conservation and Development” podcast. This podcast was produced at the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island in Beaufort, North Carolina.
Today we are going to talk about artificial islands and their role in ocean development. We will discuss some of the island nations in the Pacific Ocean that are at risk of losing their land due to sea-level-rise, and how artificial island projects might offer them a solution. We will also examine the legal implications of sinking island nations and artificial islands under international maritime law, as well as take a closer look at the projects that are currently underway and discuss whether or not they are compatible with the needs of the Pacific Islands.
C: Jingyi, what comes to mind when you hear the words “artificial islands?”
J: Hmm well, my mind jumps to something that seems out of a sci-fi movie. I picture digital mockups…designs that portray networks of gleaming glass, hexagonal properties, jutting off the coasts of major cityscapes into the surrounding crystal-clear blue waters.
C: Me too! Every image I have seen always portrays these islands as spaces where humans and nature are in balance, everything seems to take on an eco-friendly aesthetic. There are lots of solar panels, greenhouses, vegetation and people are traveling around the spaces via kayak or jet skis. These mock-ups always seem to paint this image of self-sustaining spaces where humans not only live, but also grow their own crops, raise fish in pens, harvest shellfish from ropes that are dangling off the islands, and generate a sense of community …everything is clean and harmonious.
J: But to me they seem very futuristic, and it seems like we are very far off from building these types of structures.
C: Well then, you might be surprised to learn that some of these projects are already underway. In fact, the United Nations is partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an American-based professional society, The Explorers Club, to create an ocean development project named Oceanix. And their proposed design is not far off from the picture you just described. There are modular island blocks that contain residential buildings, public gathering spaces, urban farming projects, and aquaculture facilities. The designers state that this particular project will be able to house up to ten-thousands residents, with the possibility of expansion by adding on additional modules.
The Oceanix project hasn’t announced where it will build its first development.
But this project and others like it are being viewed as solutions to some of the environmental problems that we are facing – such as sea-level-rise and overcrowding in urban centers. Places such as Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Japan are already developing plans to build artificial islands that will be used to expand residential development off of existing cities. But the thing I find most compelling is the thought of using this type of design for places that are most prone to going underwater due to sea level rise, such as islands in the Pacific Ocean.
[Maybe add some island music?]
Seen from the air, Kiribati looks like paradise — tropical islands, ringed by shallow emerald waters. But up close, the fragility of the land reveals itself…. Throughout the islands one can see coconut palms with exposed roots clinging to eroded coastlines, angry waves crashing against sandbag seawalls, and the ocean seeping into people’s homes…
C: So, let’s look a little closer at some of the Pacific Islands and why projects like artificial islands might be needed there. Jingyi, what do you know about the small nation of Kiribati?
J: Kiribati lies near the equator about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Comprised of 32 atolls and 1 coral island, Kiribati is divided into three widely distributed archipelagos, the Gilbert Islands in the west, the Phoenix Islands in the center, and the Line Islands in the east. In terms of its demographics, the current permanent population is just over one hundred and ten thousand, with over 90 per cent of the population living in the capital city, Tarawa Atoll, in the Gilbert Islands. The total landmass of Kiribati is smaller than that of greater London. But its fishing grounds cover an area larger than India, more than 4000 times of the land area, due to the dispersed nature of the islands. And Kiribati has some of the most productive tuna fishing grounds in the Pacific Islands. The majority of small-scale fishing activity in Kiribati is for local subsistence purposes. But it is also an important tuna fishing ground for industrial fleets from a number of distant-water fishing nations including Japan, Korea, the United States, and Spain. Kiribati earns more than half of its GDP through leasing fishing licenses to these countries. According to The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the fishing revenues in 2017, accounts for 66 per cent of the GDP.
Not only does Kiribati have valuable fisheries resources, it also has one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, called Phoenix Islands Protected Area. It was established in 2010 and constitutes about eleven percent of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This maritime zone covers an area as large as the state of California and was created in order to protect the nation’s near-pristine coral reef ecosystems.
C: Amazing, it seems like Kiribati is deeply tied to the ocean and puts a strong emphasis on environmental protection.
J: And it is a member of Small Island Developing States, also known as SIDS. SIDS, first recognized by the United Nations in 1992, are a coalition of small island countries that tend to share similar attributes, including remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters, and fragile environments. Most SIDS are also members of the Alliance of Small Island States also known as AOSIS, which was established in 1990. It is an intergovernmental organization that performs lobbying and negotiating functions to address climate change issues for the SIDS within the United Nations system. A paper by Joshua Pearce, a researcher at Michigan Technological University, published in “Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews” in 2016, shows that, the potential liability for climate change-related losses for the AOSIS is over $570 trillion dollars…
C: But I heard that these groups have played a leading role in raising awareness of climate change on the international stage and advocating for strong climate action. Is that correct?
J: That’s true. However, despite the increased awareness of the negative impacts associated with climate change, much of the damage has already been done. According to researchers at Princeton University, even if greenhouse gas emission were to immediately halt, the planet would continue to warm for hundreds of years to come. And worse still, the international community has yet to curb its greenhouse gas emissions in any effective capacity. Therefore, sea level rise is inevitable and will continue to threaten the livelihoods of the Pacific islanders, and even the existence of the nations.
Sea level rise plays a unique role in the climate change context because it is both a long-term, gradual process and a contributor to storm surges and flooding. A striking moment in the documentary, Kiribati: a drowning paradise in the South Pacific, produced by Discover the World, is when, a local resident named Kaboua points to the empty, barren land around him and says, quote “There used to be a large village with 70 families. But these days, this land is only accessible at low tide. At high tide, it’s all underwater. Sea levels are rising all the time and swallowing up the land. ” End quote. According to official data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the current pace of global sea level rise is about 3.6 millimeters per year, which is more than doubled the 1.4 millimeters per year rate that occurred throughout most of the twentieth century.
Going back to the situation in Kiribati, did you know that Kiribati could be gone in as little as 30 years?
C: Seriously? … as little as 30 years? How is that even possible?
J: Kiribati is one of the lowest-lying nations on the planet, with much of the nation sitting just above sea level. Rising ocean waters are threatening to shrink Kiribati’s land area, which will result in increased storm damage, flooded homes, and the destruction of its crop-growing lands, ultimately displacing its people, long before the islands are fully submerged.
C: Hmm. This reminds me of something I heard about a few years ago. A family from Kiribati applied for refugee status in New Zealand, the request was explicitly due to the effects of climate change. Their request was ultimately dismissed, but it was the first application for environmental refuge in a different country.
J: Displaced people, specifically those who are forced to relocate due to rising sea-levels are generating a very real concern on the global stage. Migration is a way for people to relocate if an environmental disruption threatens their existence or seriously affects their quality of life; however, the relocation of entire nations has not occurred in the modern era…. Meaning there is no blueprint or guiding principles for the threatened Pacific Islands to follow.
In anticipation of the need to eventually evacuate their homelands, the Kiribati government bought nearly 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, at a price of $7 million dollars. This land is meant to be a partial refuge for people living in Kiribati who will be displaced by climate change, but this is not a feasible option for every nation and every individual.
According to Heather Lazrus, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the notion of displaced islanders as future climate refugees, has been strongly contested by those who live on these islands. In the context of Pacific island communities facing sea-level rise, many islanders view such a label as detrimental to community strength and resilience. Similarly, Maria Tiimon, a climate activist from Kiribati, also rejects a climate refugee ‘solution’ as too simplistic. As she put it, climate change is not just about moving people to a safer place, it is more about equity, identity and human rights.
Many Kiribati residents also believe that the dominant discourse of adaptation to climate change that emphasizes relocation are devoid of appropriate cultural meaning and remain skeptical of the need to leave. After all, Kiribati has been inhabited since 3000 BC. Many Islanders doubt whether they could obtain the skills needed to survive overseas.
Residents are also worried about losing their culture, identity, and the right to self-govern. For example, what happens with the massive tuna fishing grounds that Kiribati currently controls in the waters surrounding its islands, if the islands are no longer there…
C: To enable the residents to stay where they are, former Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong, along with World Bank’s Kiribati Adaptation Program (KAP), proposed “artificial islands” as a promising solution back in 2012. As former president Tong put it, quote “Transition to an artificial island is a feasible option with significant international support and would enable survival for the population of South Tarawa with minimum disruption to their current lifestyle.” End quote. The designs look like something that might be devised for another planet in the distant future. Each island will be nearly two miles across, with a central tower rising half a mile to form a “city in the sky”. The tower will have residential units for 30,000 people and space for offices, services and shops…. but guess how much it costs?
J: Maybe 20 million dollars…?
C: It is actually closer to 412 billion dollars! This is almost 3,000 times greater than Kiribati’s current GDP…
J: So, when we think about projects like Oceanix and the Kiribati Adaptation Program, it seems like artificial islands have the potential to offer a solution to places that are experiencing and will experience the effects of sea level rise…albeit extremely expensive and resource intensive…and maybe it is a solution for only a portion of the community…. The Sky Towers can house 30,0000. But you said that the Oceanix project can house about 10,000 residents?
C: Correct. There is the ability to add on other islands, but it seems like they envision 10,000 being the general capacity of the project.
J: So, if these projects are to offer a possible solution, it is quite apparent that the Pacific Islands would have to act very quickly to complete these projects, especially given the current sea-level-rise projections. But we also have to mention the fact that Kiribati is not the only island in the Pacific that will be impacted by rising oceans. The Pacific Islands, which includes nations such as Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Tonga – are home to millions of people that might need housing, or relocation. The Marshall Islands is considering moving its entire population — that is 55,000 people! So, if they want to stay where they are currently located, they would need about two Sky Towers or five of the Oceanix projects! That is a lot to build….
Are we going to see a rapid push to complete these types of projects if Kiribati and other Pacific Island Nations have only 30 years until they are entirely underwater? And even less time before people have to start relocating.
C: The timeline that the project developers are working with is definitely short. Unfortunately, at the moment in the Pacific Islands, a lot of the projects are still in their planning phases. Most nations are only just starting to put together plans for potential artificial islands or floating island projects. And there is a lot of debate about what these islands should look like, how many people will be able to live there, and most importantly — who should bear the cost of building these islands.
J: Apart from cost are there any other barriers?
C: Yes. There is actually an international agreement that defines the rights and obligations that nations have in regard to the world’s oceans and more specifically what development projects and activities can or cannot be conducted. These laws are all laid out in the agreements that were derived from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, commonly referred to as UNCLOS.
J: Can you say more about UNCLOS?
C: Sure! It is a very long treaty that covers numerous topics regarding the governance of the oceans. So, I will try to give a brief background of the document and how it relates to artificial islands.
J: Sounds good!
C: UNCLOS was adopted by the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Seas in April 1982. However, it was not ratified until 1993 when it gained the necessary 60 signatories to become international law. One of the most important products that came out of this agreement was the establishment of marine zones that extend off the shores of coastal nations. Some of these include the 12 nautical mile limit on territorial waters, and the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, as well as the high seas. All of these different zones have varying levels of jurisdictional and sovereign rights. In territorial waters, nations have full sovereignty, while EEZs give countries sovereign rights to develop and exploit resources in the water column and sea floor… Essentially, this agreement lays out a map of which States are allowed to access and control the resources in certain areas of the ocean.
J: Does it say anything specifically about artificial islands?
C: Well, that’s where it gets a little complicated. Artificial islands ARE mentioned and acknowledged as an acceptable practice. But with certain limitations. There is no official definition of artificial islands within the language of the document, which makes it a little difficult to differentiate between the numerous man-made objects that are used in ocean development …. such as oil rigs, dredged islands of natural material, or concrete platforms, for example. However, the document takes great care to define other geographic features such as “islands,” “rocks,” and “low-tide elevation.” All of these features are granted certain levels of maritime zones.
For example, the islands of Hawaii are recognized as natural islands. Natural islands are “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.” Therefore, the United States is able to establish a territorial sea around these islands as well as a 200-mile EEZ. Rocks on the other hand, are defined as land masses that are permanently above water, but unable to sustain human habitation – these features are allowed territorial seas and contiguous zones, but not EEZs. And then finally, low-tide elevations, if located outside territorial seas are not granted any additional maritime zones.
Nation states are allowed to build artificial islands as long as they are within their own EEZ… but building a new island does not extend a pre-established EEZ. No territory will be gained.
J: So, does that mean as an island shrinks and people can no longer live there, does it now have “rock” status, based on the UNCLOS definitions of “islands” and “rocks?” And if they go completely underwater will they immediately lose their EEZ and territorial waters? What happens to their maritime zones?
C: It is unclear. Under the current UNCLOS language, there is nothing that states what happens to an EEZ or territorial waters if an island goes underwater. This leaves the Pacific Islands vulnerable to having their territorial waters and EEZ claimed by neighboring countries, and it also opens to door for other nations to come in and exploit the marine resources that places like Kiribati have worked so hard to manage and protect.
J: What if the citizens of the Pacific Islands did have to evacuate, but then wished to return to their ancestral waters and build artificial islands within their historic EEZs. Would they be able to do that?
C: That is also unclear.
This ambiguity is a good indicator of the line of thinking people had during the time that UNCLOS was drafted. I don’t think anyone anticipated the need for artificial islands in order to house or protect entire nations. The idea that climate change and sea-level-rise could effectively wipe out an entire nation state was well beyond the purview of international leaders at the time.
And as you mentioned, it is still beyond comprehension to most people, even those who are most impacted.
Here is a clip of former president Tong speaking about his country, and how his people are viewing the possibility of having to relocate in the near future….
J: So, what comes next? Do the Pacific Islands need to start developing the technology to create the type of artificial island that builds up the land that is currently above sea level if they hope to keep their maritime zones?
C: Although we talked earlier about the ongoing development for modern artificial islands projects that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, the fact is that the technology to build some forms of artificial islands already exists. Humans have been constructing artificial islands for thousands of years, even if they do not involve the type of modern technology seen in the new projects like Oceanix that we discussed earlier.
In fact, there have been some major land reclamation and island building projects even within the last 10 years!
J: No way!
C: Let’s take a look at the artificial island development projects that are currently happening in the South China Sea as they are very different from the designs of the Oceanix project and the floating islands designed for the Kiribati.
J: What is going on there? What do these artificial island projects look like?
C: These projects are unbelievable. Many of the artificial islands started off as sandbars and shallow reefs. Aerial images show that China has deployed numerous ships and dredgers to these islands. The process is fairly simple: using dredges and cutting attachments, the seafloor sediment is broken up and sucked up from the bottom. The material is then transported through floating pipes and deposited onto the natural reef in order to expand the amount of land that is above the water. One underwater reef has now been built into an island that is 3,000 yards long. But what is most astounding is the rate of development and how quickly China has completed these projects. The Chinese government reports that one of the dredgers is capable of extracting sediment at a rate of 4,530 cubic meters per hour. That is about enough sand to fill two Olympic size swimming pools.
This same dredger was able to build 27 acres of new land, including a functioning harbor within a four-month period. That is about the size of 20 football fields.
In total, between 2014 and 2015, China was able to create over 2,000 acres of land in the South China Sea, at one point they were dredging and building islands at a rate of 3.5 acres per day!
J: Wow that is a really impressive pace. Why is China so keen on developing islands in the South China Sea?
C: Long story, short the South China Sea is an incredibly important area in terms of shipping, oil and gas, as well as fisheries. In this area alone, there are 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 12% of the world’s fisheries are extracted from the waters of the South China Sea. To add to the importance of this region, $5.3 trillion-dollars worth of shipping and global trade passes through these waters each year. China has been so quick to develop these islands in order to secure natural resources, military, and geopolitical power in the area.
J: Interesting, I will have to read more about this later. Going back to the projects envisioned for the Pacific Islands, are these development projects more or less expensive?
C: It’s hard to say. China hasn’t been very forthcoming about how much money it has invested in their island projects. But some estimates put the cost at $5 billion dollars per island.
J: And remember that the GDP of Kiribati is about $200 million, Tonga’s is $460 million, and Tuvalu’s is $40 million…. So still a serious monetary investment and well outside the scope of the GDPs and budgets of pretty much all of Pacific Island Nations. Based on these numbers it seems that, if the Pacific Islands want to pursue reclamation and island building projects similar to the ones that are occurring in the South China Sea, they will definitely need outside resources and help from the international community.
C: I will also add that the $5 billion-dollar price tag is excluding all of the development on top. So, it is likely that the final costs are going to be much greater than that.
J: So, the technology exists to possibly shore up the Pacific Islands so that the land does not go underwater. But if the international community is unwilling to lend massive amounts of resources and aid to these projects, it is unlikely that the Pacific Islands will be able to save their land by this method.
C: Right. And this artificial island method might not be congruent with the culture and needs of the Pacific Island nations.
We don’t have time to go deeply into the biological implications of these projects. But the scale of these developments is so large that there are visible plumes of suspended sediment extending far out into the surrounding waters. This does not bode well for the surrounding marine ecosystems. And then there is the fact that they are building directly on top of reefs, perhaps some of the most critically endangered habitats in the world given the impacts of climate change on reef health.
J: So, island dredging might not be the best solution for the Pacific Islands, if construction destroys the resources that people depend on to maintain their livelihoods and cultural traditions. This means that the Pacific Island nations are most likely going to have to build a completely different style of artificial islands, ones that are more similar to that of the Oceanix project.
J: Based on our discussion it seems like at least some people are thinking about artificial islands as a way to address problems such as overcrowding cities and displacement from sea level rise. AND the technology exists to save the islands or to prevent further erosion. China has demonstrated that given the proper conditions, islands can be constructed and built up within a matter of months. However, the nations that have the resources and capabilities to conduct these projects are more focused on their own national interests and furthering their ability to extract more natural resources.
C: It is worth noting that in the coming decades, every single coastal nation will have to deal with climate change and sea-level rise in some capacity. This might complicate the issue further, as it means there are fewer resources available for international aid and development projects, if nations have to address domestic displacement and infrastructure change first. For example, according to NOAA, in the US, disruptive and expensive nuisance flooding is estimated to be 300 to 900 percent more frequent than it was just 50 years ago.
J: Everyone will be affected in some capacity, but some more than others. Small island states, including Kiribati, have contributed little to the climate change problem. Their emissions have been negligible and reflect their levels of economic development and comparatively low populations.
C: Right! In fact, any emissions on small island states are largely due to their reliance on the import of fossil fuels rather than large scale industrial activity or land use issues.
And yet, these nations are the ones who are going to suffer the most from the effects of sea-level-rise and greenhouse gas emissions. This seems unfair. You remind me of a theme running through international environmental treaties since the 1970s and enshrined in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Treaty. The theme is called ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities’ and it acknowledges the different capabilities and differing responsibilities of individual countries in addressing climate change. It is true that, though climate change might be a global problem, there are obvious parties who have contributed more to emission of greenhouse gases than others.
J: It is obvious that nations have different capacities to engage in mitigation and some impacted and suffer more than others. We also need to remember what is at stake. Whole nations are threatened by the effects of climate change. Some of the societies have existed for thousands of years and much of their culture is tied to the islands, the ocean, and their sense of place. So not only are these people losing their homes, they are also threatened with losing their national sovereignty, and cultural and religious identity.
So, where does that leave us?
C: I think that there will be some very serious decisions that will have to be made within the next decade, and these are very complex issues. Will the Pacific Islands be able to protect their sovereign rights and claims to their EEZs if the islands sink? Or will the waters turn into high seas? As world leaders make revisions to the content and language of UNCLOS, they will have to start thinking about these types of questions. Otherwise, it may lead to some very serious international tensions and refugee problems.
J: Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is absolutely clear: sea levels are rising, and they are doing so more quickly than in previous decades. As former President Tong put it, “what is going to happen to us, is going to be the fate of the rest of the world.” Kiribati is just one among many island nations facing this threat. The international community will need to step up its provision of resources to help small island nations to survive.
C: Personally, I hope that the international community will rally behind the Pacific Islands and help find a solution to the problems that the global community has created. Artificial islands via sand dredging offer a timely solution, but it doesn’t seem to align with the conservation measures that places like Kiribati have put forth. Dredging would definitely have significant impacts on the marine habitats in the area and would affect the valuable fishery resources of the nations as well. If Kiribati and other Pacific Islands are unable to secure the necessary resources to develop artificial islands, the Kiribati that we know today, may be reduced to a simple platform built on top of a reef or nothing at all….
Wow, thanks Jingyi. This has been a very interesting conversation and definitely leaves me with a lot to think about.
J: Same. Thank you, Cat. While this topic can be difficult to discuss, I think it raises some very important issues that will need to be addressed in the near future.
C: Great. Thank you all for listening. That is all we have for today’s episode.
Lisa Campbell: Thanks for listening to Seas the Day. Today’s episode was written and recorded by Catherine Morse and Jingyi Sun. Marianna Kendall edited the episode. Learn more about today’s epsidoe and find past episodes of Seas the Day on our website at sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday. Our theme music was written by Joe Morton and our artwork is by Stephanie Hillgrove. Follow us on Instagram and twitter @seasthedaypod and don’t forget to leave us rating, wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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