The Terrifying And Stupid Reason Artificial Islands Are Being Built

Let's analyze the terrifying and stupid reasons some artificial islands are being built!

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Multiple countries around the world are constantly racing to expand their territories; claiming lands, moving borders, and asserting dominance over neighboring nations. While some fight for the mainland, others have begun claiming footholds out in the ocean. And not just by claiming islands, but by building them from the seafloor up!

Today there are around 250 artificial islands that have been developed around the world! Though not all of these man-made islands appear on world maps, for reasons that range from the dangerous to the downright dumb. Let's analyze the terrifying and stupid reasons some artificial islands are being built!

How to Build An Island

Usually, islands form naturally as a biproduct of violent volcanic eruptions. At the bottom of the ocean, huge earthquakes buckle the earth’s crust, forming cracks of molten magma along the seafloor.

These cracks form volcanoes that spew out hot lava, which cools in the water and solidifies into rock. This rock builds up over time and eventually emerges above the waves as a whole new island.

natural island formation

Birds scatter seeds as they fly over, shell fragments and other debris washes up onto the newly formed shores! An otherwise barren rock is gradually transformed into a sandy green paradise. That’s the lifecycle of a natural island. But unlike mother nature, humans can’t control volcanoes. As such, we took a simpler approach to our island building origins.

Starting some 5000 years ago, the Lau people constructed islands on the reefs of the Lau Lagoon. They’d paddle out with their canoes, dive for rocks, and then drop them onto the reefs, gradually creating the foundations of an island from the ocean floor up; a process that took centuries!

lau people forming island

Though the results were worth it in the end, as the man-made reef islands were far nicer real estate than the swampy coasts inhabited by their neighbors. And these islands stood the test of time as thousands of years later, they make up part of the archipelago now known as the Solomon Islands!

But since the painstaking efforts of the Lau people, we’ve worked out how to speed up the process of building artificial islands. With modern technology, we can even beat volcanoes in an island building race!

Instead of using rocks, modern artificial islands are made with sand. That may seem counter-intuitive, because rocks are more stable than sand. Medieval castles made of stone can last for 500 years, while we’ve all seen even the sturdiest sandcastles wiped out by a single wave! So how long could a sand island last against the colossal forces of the ocean?

In fact, you’d be surprised how strong compacted marine sand actually is. A square yard sandbox with a depth of 1-foot weighs about 900 pounds, that’s just under half a ton! And that’s sand when it’s dry, when it’s wet it’s even heavier!

sand weight

With that in mind, artificial islands can be thousands of square yards in size, amounting to millions of tons of sand forming a solid, dense block in the ocean. A whole lot stronger than any sandcastle on the beach!

But how do you get all that sand to one specific point in the ocean? That’s where fleets of specially designed dredger ships come into play. These ships are like the vacuum cleaners of the ocean; they host giant tubes fitted with cutting attachments that suck up tons of material from the seafloor and grind it up into a fine paste-like material.

The collected material is then sprayed onto the tops of natural reefs already on the seabed, building up these existing structures into brand new islands!

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And these dredger ships are a lot faster than the Lau people’s canoes and rocks.

Chinese dredger ships like the Tianjing, for example, have been built to shift around a mammoth 1 million gallons of material per hour. That’s the equivalent of filling around two Olympic-size swimming pools every 60 minutes!

To strengthen the sand, it is vibro-compacted into shape; the loose sand grains are pounded together to form a dense block, with cement poured over the foundations to harden the bottom layers.

Finally, to fend off even the most monstrous of waves, millions of tons of rock are placed around the sand island in a protective barrier. And there you have it, a man-made island. Although, building an island and populating an island are two very different problems, as the shoreline city of Dubai proves all too well.

Landsat View, Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Flickr - NASA Goddard Photo and Video
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With its white sands, blue skies, and turquoise seas, Dubai is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Though it’s getting awfully crowded these days; with 3.3 million residents, it makes up just under a third of the entire population of the United Arab Emirates!

In order to create more space for valuable coastal real estate, developers started construction on a series of artificial islands back in 2001. The most famous of these is the Palm Jumeirah, which is shaped like a giant palm!

A crescent surrounds all 17 fronds of the 3.1-mile diameter palm to act as a breakwater structure. The developers invested a whopping $12 billion into making the palm-shaped island!

Palm Jumeirah
Via Google Maps

The entire palm, made up of more than 4.2 trillion cubic ft of sand and rocks, enough to fill the 80,000 seat AT&T stadium 40 times over, stretches across 1,380 acres of ocean and hosts rows of luxury villas. And if you didn’t already think an ocean view was expensive, some of these villas are listed for more than $27 million each!

And while the entire Palm is spread out in the ocean, the trunk is home to a wide array of department stores that cater to the super rich locals! It’s everything a resident could need, all in one Palm-shaped Island! But it’s not the only artificial island on Dubai’s coastline! Although, the others look more like desert cast-offs than luxury real estate.

Out of the four artificial islands developers set out to construct along Dubai’s coast back in the early 2000s, only the Palm Jumeirah has been completed. The other islands fell afoul of the 2008 financial crash, when cash-strapped investors pulled out and developers lost their funding.

As a result, the Palm Deira, which was supposed to be a staggering 8 times the size of the Palm Jumeirah, is currently just a random scattering of sand peaking above the waves!

Deira-Islands – Palm Deira - under construction - ديرة-جزر - النخلة ديرة - تحت الإنشاء - panoramio
giggel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And though the neighboring Palm Jebel Ali’s shape has been completed, investors pulled out of the project entirely, leaving the sand banks barren for more than 10 years. So, in the end developers wasted billions of dollars just moving a bunch of sand!

With their limited funds, developers decided instead to focus on completing the World Islands: an archipelago of 300 islands flush with top end developments, the shape of which is supposed to resemble the World Map.

Together these islands cover an area much larger than the Palm Jumeirah, and the amount of sand required to build all the individual islands up was more than double what the Palm needed: an utterly unreal 10.5 trillion cubic ft!

All of this was dredged from the ocean and deposited in a shallow region where the seabed was between 30 and 55 ft beneath the waves. Each island was built to crest a little under 10 ft above the shoreline, creating perfectly peaked islands totally detached from the mainland.

making of worlds islands

Obviously, this wasn’t cheap, costing the developers more than an eye-watering $14 billion in total. But that’s where the building stopped. The islands were supposed to be fully developed and completed by 2008, but the financial crash wiped those plans off the map, literally.

Today, only a handful of islands, mainly in the section known affectionately as ‘the Heart of Europe,' have been fully developed.

the heart of europe
©Google Maps

The rest are tragically sparse, with even the richest people in the world not really seeing the appeal of owning an undeveloped island, one of which can cost up to $1.8 billion, that’s 2.5 miles from the nearest shore! While developers have hinted repeatedly that work will soon resume, the overextended novelty of the entire project has turned it into one very expensive, world-ending decision.

The Invisible Islands

Not all artificial islands are created purely for overly expensive real estate purposes. In some cases, their uses are a lot more intimidating. Though they aren’t officially recognized on any world maps, China’s artificial islands are bright red spots on other countries’ radars!

Also referred to as the Great Wall of Sand, since 2014 China has created 3200 acres of new land in the South China Sea. That’s the equivalent of more than 2400 football fields! But the Chinese government aren’t building these islands to start their own Superbowl. This country’s goals are far more worrying.

This stretch of ocean is one of the world’s richest natural resources. An energy goldmine, it contains around 11 billion barrels of oil! This is rapidly being guzzled up by China, as the country goes through 12.8 million barrels of oil per day!

But even when the oil supplies run out, there’s still 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to be tapped into! That means the South China Sea has enough resources within it to make it a world-powering battery!

south china sea resources
Via Google Maps

The area also acts as the highway for a third of the world’s global shipping trade! So basically, whoever controls the South China Sea also holds the key to some of the world’s biggest economies. It’s no surprise then, that multiple countries want a piece of the pie.

Currently, claims over the South China Sea are hotly disputed and fought over by 7 key nations: Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China. Six of these countries stake their claims based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This states that territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles off a country’s coastline, while their exclusive economic zone or EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles.

eez
Via Google Maps

The EEZ is sort of like calling shotgun, where countries have exclusive rights to all the resources and trade in their EEZ; so, any fish caught, and any oil found within that area, is theirs. Areas outside of the EEZ are considered international waters and are shared by everyone.

Only six of these countries stake their claims based on the UN’s EEZ rule. Just like a greedy sibling, China doesn’t just want a single slice, but the whole damn pie! China has outlined their claim based on a border called the nine-dash line.

It stretches from Taiwan to Malaysia and covers 90% of the South China Sea. They left the other 10% so as not to appear greedy. Though really, who wants the pie crust when all the filling’s been taken.

nine-dash line
Via Google Maps

China bases its claim on naval expeditions dating back to the 15th century, which is like saying you’ve got an eternal front seat shotgun because you sat in it once when you were five! The rest of the world sees right through this flimsy excuse.

So, China has started bending the rules to their own benefit. Which leads us to the Spratly Islands, aka the Great Wall of Sand. Though they may seem like a random cluster of sandbanks, they are in fact prime real estate, sat right in the heart of the South China Sea. Furthermore, the country that claims the Spratly Islands can also extend their EEZ!

country extending eez
Via Google Maps

However, it’s difficult to claim uninhabited piles of sand, even if you have a sandcastle with your country’s flag stuck in it! So, a few nations have built small buildings and ports on their claimed islands. But China has taken their developments to a whole other level.

Under everyone’s noses, China has constructed whole new islands on these underwater reefs and has been building each of them up in turn into military bases! So far, they’ve built some 72 fighter jet hangars at its three airbases: Fiery Cross, Mischief Island, and the Subi Reef.

china military base
Via Google Maps

Even when an international tribunal declared these islands illegal, China ignored that judgment and instead armed these islands with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. And if that wasn’t scary enough, the Chinese government has also invested heavily in radar and signal intelligence equipment.

It’s safe to say that China can see everything moving in or above the South China Sea! Beijing says its military profile over the Spratly Islands is “purely defensive”. But it’s difficult to believe that when all their artificial islands are kitted out with offensive weaponry.

Considering how important this stretch of ocean is to the world’s trade and energy resources, China’s extensive military presence on these islands is making other world powers seriously uneasy. Tensions are rising in the South China Sea, the results of which could determine the entire world’s future!

China’s ultimate goals in building these artificial islands are terrifying to consider. They could either claim sole ownership to world changing amounts of power, or turn this stretch of ocean into a battleground, if other countries felt the need to retaliate.

south china sea fate
Via Google Maps

But China hasn’t just used its dredging abilities to create problem islands out in the middle of the ocean. A little closer to home, they’ve dredged up Ocean Flower Island, also known as the ‘Dubai of China’ being the world’s largest manmade tourist island!

Early signs of dredging and construction began all the way back in 2012, and by 2014 the main flower island had begun to take shape. But it wouldn’t be until 2020 that it would be completed, with the main mass flanked by two connecting, leaf shaped islands. In total, it covers 1,980 acres, making it 1 ½ times bigger than the Palm Jumeriah.

dubai of china

And the developers certainly got what they paid for, as it cost them a whopping $25 billion to dredge up! But its funding and finances aren’t all that straight forward.

The project was originally approved by Zhang Qi, a local politician later convicted of corruption for overruling environmental laws. And now the island developers are struggling to pay an estimated $300 billion back in fines! That’s more than Elon Musk’s entire net worth!

Coral Quarrel

Aside from losing bank-breaking amounts of money, and risking an all-out war over their development, the creations of some artificial islands can also come at a terrible cost to the environment. Given the current climate crisis, this really isn’t something the world can afford to handle and definitely not on this scale!

The underwater coral reefs China built the majority of its artificial islands on top of have been completely annihilated in the process! You may think these artificial islands were only made of sand and concrete. But really, these islands have a make-up more akin to a crab stick!

That’s because, when the dredger ships were collecting material from the seabed, they didn’t just vacuum up sand, but everything along the seafloor. All the crabs, lobsters, anemones, starfish, and coral were sucked up too, ground into paste and dumped onto the island to build it up.

View post on TikTok

The Chinese government claims it has begun restoring the natural reefs it has destroyed, but it’s pretty difficult to restore something when you’ve already whipped it round in a blender and smothered it with concrete!

Where there was once incredible biodiversity surrounding these coral reefs, there are now dead zones, as dredging the seabed wiped out everything living around them. Now all that resides on these artificial islands are Chinese soldiers and crab ghosts! But China’s sea tirade gets much darker, and murkier, than that.

Currently, relations between China and Taiwan are strained. To put pressure on this even further, China has started to send its 4000 strong fleet of sand dredgers into Taiwan’s territory to scoop up sand for its own construction projects. It may not sound like an all-out offensive, but this illegal trespassing puts pressure on Taiwan’s naval forces, and is a tactic known as ‘grey-zone warfare’.

On 5 occasions in 2020, the dredgers also damaged undersea communication cables between the Taiwanese islands of Nangan and Juguang, disrupting mobile and internet services to thousands of residents.

Seabees remove corroded zinc anodes from an undersea cable. (28073762161)
Official U.S. Navy Page from United States of AmericaMC1 Charles White/U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The needling assault is putting a lot of pressure on Taiwan, who have started retaliating by firing water cannons at illegal dredging ships in an attempt to damage the ships, and even sink them. If this escalation continues, it’s possible the two might engage in a war over sand, doesn’t exactly seem like the most noble reason to go to war!

Meanwhile, the artificial islands along the coastline of Dubai are causing the country’s trademark beaches to literally disappear! Typically, Dubai’s beaches lose between 350,000 and 520,000 cubic feet of sand each year to tides and natural erosion. However, the Palm Jumeirah’s construction has altered the natural flow of the tides and coastal wind, rapidly increasing the rate of erosion!

Not only that, but as the shoreline encroaches, beachfront buildings could turn into aquariums as they’re flooded by ocean tides! As it stands, the current coastline has been irregularly eroded over the last 20 years, all thanks to Palm Jumeirah’s construction.

Perhaps this is nature’s revenge for the damage the artificial islands caused to local marine biodiversity? Yes, it’s not just China’s islands that’ve had an impact on marine life. The process of Dubai’s’ extensive land reclamation scattered silt into the water, burying coral reefs, oyster beds, and sea grass in a 2-inch-thick layer of sediment.

seabed destruction

These organisms play a vital role in the local ecosystem, protecting coastal regions from storms and preventing beach erosion. Meaning with them buried under artificial islands, Dubai’s beaches are now disappearing faster than ever!

In response to this, the developers have begun plans to create artificial reefs. Though the developers may need to google what a reef is, as they plan to sink two F-86 fighter jets onto the seafloor in the hopes that coral will grow over them, and marine life will make them their home. These jets will construct an artificial reef alongside an airbus passenger plane and a London bus!

The developers hope that these sunken objects will be as attractive to marine life as they are to tourists, with corals and deep-sea plants using them as a stable foundation to grow on.

restoring coral reef

Hopefully, the fish will be intrigued enough to stay for the long-term, because the return of coral reefs may be the only way to save Dubai’s beaches from eroding any further! That certainly would ruin those multi-million-dollar views but that’s far from their only problem.

Sinking Feeling

You know the old saying that goes, “houses built on sand never last”? It turns out the same goes for artificial islands!

Though they may appear solid from the outside, China’s islands of sand are starting to crumble. That’s because, despite these militarized artificial islands boasting near 10,000 ft runways, no fighter jet planes have landed on them in five years!

China’s islands of sands
Via Google Maps

Why build an airstrip and never land a plane? It seems suspicious but that’s because the islands may be sinking! Though the Chinese government strongly denies these claims, rumors suggest that the island foundations are turning to sponges in the hot, humid conditions of the South China Sea.

And that’s before the islands are even put to the test in the extreme conditions of a direct hit from a super-typhoon, which the area is occasionally prone to! China tried to game international law by building islands where none existed before. But there were reasons for that, as the natural conditions of the South China Sea are not hospitable to island formation.

And now the ocean is taking back its real estate! So other world powers can rest assured, China’s claims to the South China Sea are sinking where they stand! But China’s islands aren’t the only ones that are falling back into the ocean.

ISS047-E-2332 - View of South China Sea
View of South China Sea. Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As early as 2010, the company Penguin Marine warned developers that the Dubai archipelago was sinking back into the sea. The developers denied these claims, stating that the island was naturally “settling” its position on the seabed. However, it turns out that ‘settling’ is just fancy PR spin for ‘sinking’, because the islands are undeniably going under!

Photographs taken from the International Space Station in 2010 showed evidence that the waters of the Persian Gulf were rising, and the islands were starting to disappear! You’ve probably heard by now that sea levels around the world are rising due to the world’s current climate crisis.

Ice sheets and glaciers are melting, causing ice water to rush into the ocean, while the ocean itself is expanding due to the absorption of excess heat. As a result, the ocean is rising by 3.6 millimeters per year, and is expected to rise by more than a foot by 2050! Meanwhile, NASA has calculated that all Dubai’s manmade islands are sinking at a rate of 5 millimeters per year!

Combined with rising sea levels, the Palm Jumeirah and World Islands are being submerged at a rate of 8.6 millimeters every year! That may seem like a small amount, but it doesn’t take much of a height difference for these islands to become uninhabitable.

dubai islands sinking
Via Google Maps

The previously mentioned wave breakers that surround the island stand at 9.8 feet tall. But the highest ever recorded wave to hit Dubai’s shores was 11 feet tall! By 2050, the Palm Jumeirah and Worlds Islands will have sunk by roughly 1.46 feet, making these wave breakers useless when it comes to defending the island from large tidal waves, causing the Palm Jumeirah to eventually wash away all together!

So even if you did win the lottery, it’d be wiser to invest in property elsewhere, as Dubai’s Artificial Island days are definitely numbered. Its entire coast is soon set to become a real-life Atlantis!

Overall, it seems that just creating real estate opportunities is a stupid, dangerous, and over expensive reason to build an island, given that they’ll be at the bottom of the ocean in the not-so-distant future!

Artificial Islands Dubai
Via Google Maps

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