Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own tropical island? Your own little slice of paradise? One that isn’t already developed and crowded? If only you could just build your own island from scratch to the exact size and shape you want and only allow family and friends on to the island. That would be the dream, wouldn’t it? If you have ever had thoughts like this, you aren’t the first. In fact, artificial islands have been around since ancient Egyptian civilizations, albeit for less glamorous purposes than we may think of today.
Fig. 1 Palm Islands, Dubai – The extravagant private artificial island constructed in Dubai for luxury housing. Several similar islands are currently underway or scheduled for the near future in Dubai. Credit: Commander Leroy Chiao - NASA website, Public Domain.
You may have seen on the news stories of luxurious artificial island projects like the Palm Islands in Dubai (Figure 1) or various projects in China. But there are many artificial islands around the world. The modern, architecturally complex, resort style islands are currently the exception rather than the rule. Most artificial islands in existence today have been built for a variety of more practical purposes including to serve as airports (Figure 2), a platform for oil drilling, or simply a place to deposit reclaimed land (any land material that needed to be moved for another building project).Wikipedia has a list of over 150 documented artificial islands around the world. The US leads with 30 (not including Scotland’s several hundred crannógs), followed by Russia and Japan with 19 (all fortresses) and 16, respectively.
Fig. 2 Kansai International Airport Island, Japan – Kansai International Airport was built off the coast of Osaka to relieve overcrowding at Osaka Airport. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, Public Domain.
But what impact does building an island where there didn’t use to be land must have on ecological communities?
Unfortunately, this question is not easily answered. Tragically, very little is known about the impacts of artificial islands on nearby wildlife. I could find [HB4] only a select handful of concept papers (research papers that simply describe an idea or method) [HB5] [1,2], but no published studies that directly measure the before and after effects of constructing an artificial island. This is a major problem. Many island nations are growing in population, but shrinking in available land mass thanks to sea level rise. The creation of artificial islands is already being heavily utilized by some island nations (e.g. Japan) and investigated by others as a way to mitigate these problems. Humans have a long history of failing to realize potential negative environmental consequences of our actions until it is too late. Artificial islands are shaping up to become the next addition to that list if we don’t start researching them.
What we do know
It is hard to believe that we know so little about something that we have been doing for so long. While it is a major problem that no direct before and after comparison studies have been done yet, we do have knowledge of the impacts of related construction activities that can inform us of the potential impacts of artificial islands. For instance, the creation of most artificial islands involves the dredging and relocation of large amounts of land material (e.g. sand, stone, dirt). Many studies have been done on the impacts of dredging and the deposition of dredge spoils on local communities. These impacts include stirring up long-buried contaminants  and reducing water clarity, which can kill off seagrass and coral communities [4,5]. Furthermore, we know that the construction of piers, breakwaters, and other physical structures can contribute to erosion . It is likely that the degree of impacts of artificial islands will vary with their size, location, and purpose/usage. There is also a possibility that some artificial islands may provide some benefits, such as structure that may attract marine life. But we won’t know the extent of either until we conduct scientific studies.
The creation of artificial islands is nothing new, but we may be on the cusp of an expansion in their use. For this reason, we would be wise to begin attempting to learn about the impacts of these structures so that we can make informed decisions.
This is a call to arms for scientists, funding agencies, and most importantly, governments planning new artificial island projects – conduct extensive pre-construction studies on water quality parameters (e.g. contaminant levels, water clarity, nutrient levels) and surveys of animal life (species, abundance, and distribution). The more years that these studies can be repeated prior to construction, the better to account for annual variation in these parameters due to things like differences in rainfall or winds. Than these studies can be repeated after construction to understand how these structures impact the natural environment where they were built. Without this information, we may not realize that we are creating a problem until the problem has gotten out of hand.
Tiaolan, Y., W. Nuo, W. Nuan, S. Nanqi. 2014. Assessment of offshore airport artificial island construction impact on chlorophyll-a using HJ-1A/B-CCD satellite data. International Conference on Mechatronics, Electronic, Industrial and Control Engineering, MEIC 2014.
Lister, N., E. Muk-Pavic. 2015. Sustainable artificial island concept for the Republic of Kiribati. Ocean Engineer, 98: 78-87.
Martins, M., P.M. Costa, J. Raimundo, C. Vale, A.M. Ferreira, M.H. Costa. 2012. Impact of remobilized contaminants in *Mytilus edulis *during dredging operations in a harbour area: Bioaccumulation and biomarker responses. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, 85: 96-103.
Waycott, M., B.J. Longstaff, J. Mellors. 2005. Seagrass population dynamics and water quality in the Great Barrier Reef region: A review and future research directions. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 51: 343-350.
Flood, V.S., J.M. Pitt, S.R. Smith. 2005. Historical and ecological analysis of coral communities in Castle Harbour (Bermuda) after more than a century of environmental perturbation. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 51: 545-577.
Ranasinghe, R., I.L. Turner. 2006. Shoreline response to submerged structures: A review. Coastal Engineering, 53: 56-79.
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