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.
More From Thats Life [Science]
- The Rise of Sourdough and Mason Jar Ecosystems
- Radioactive Bananas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Greenhouse Gases, OH MY!
- Uncharted Intellectual Territory: Science Isn’t Linear
- It’s a Trap! How Looks Can Be Deceiving in Habitat Selection
- The Feelings that Linger: Good vs. Bad
- Go With Your Gut...
- Live Fast, Die Young: Why Some Animals Die After Mating
- New Culture, New Microbiome, New Problems
- If Only There Were a U.S. Census Question About Biodiversity…
- How An Invasive Plant Helped Fuel The Largest Wildfire You’ve Never Heard Of
- Human Eye Structure Makes No Sense…Or Does It?
- The Price of Pigment on Your Immune System
- Midnight Snacks Could Be the Death of You
- Lobster Fight Club
- Making a Murderer - A Matter of Biology?
- Got Lactase? Breaking Down the Enzyme
- Why Do I Shiver When It’s Cold?
- Crap you didn’t really need to know
- You Can't Observe A Lot Just By Watching
- What Do You Do When It's Too Hot to Move?
- 5 Fun Facts about Hormones
- Death stinks - literally
- Why the sea salt fad could be very bad
- Henry's Pockets: A Poem
- Henry's Pockets: A Poem
- Biology Superpowers: X-Ray Vision
- How to Expand Your Senses by Reading a Blog Post
- What's up with bat echolocation?
- Seeing is Believing - How Can We Visualize Tiny Colorless Bacteria?
- Saving water is no longer a matter of how short our showers are · Water balance in a man-made world
- Double Digestion in Rabbits · Why Does Mopsy Eat Her Own Poop?
- Should I say sex or gender? Pt. 2
- Should I say sex or gender? Pt. 1
- How To Catch Hard-to-Catch Fish?
- Finding the Perfect Partner
- Is your gut trying to kill your resolve? · Mind over microbe
- Why Do Mothers Mother?
- GMO! The Places You'll Go!
- New-Fangled Paleontology · Really Old Fossils, Really Strong Predators, and Cool New Tech
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought, part III
- Saving face: transplanting our most distinctive features
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought, part II
- DNA as a solution for data storage · DNA - Nature’s Hard Drive
- A Crash Course in the Coolness of Mitochondria · Mitochondria: The Underrated Organelles
- A Pollinator’s Job Description and Why We Should All Care About Them · Pollination 101
- You May Say I’m Biased, But I’m Not the Only One
- The evolution of one of the greatest medical discoveries in history. · The Path of Least Resistance: Our Relationship with Antibiotics
- Mother Nature’s History Book · Estimating the Age of Life Long-Gone
- Proprioception as a vital sense · Know Your Limb-its
- Man’s Best Artificially-Selected Friend · Your Dog is a GMO Wolf
- Better Safe Than Sorry: The Pesticide Industry is Getting a Revamp
- Sometimes scientists have to get creative in order to effectively do science – especially on a budget. · The Bizarre Shopping List of a Determined Scientist
- Insects Get Sick Too: The Study of Insect Pathology
- Our teeny tiny friends and their huge potential · Employee of the Month - Hire a Microbe to Do Your Work
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought - Part I
- The Effects of Custom Build Paradise · Artificial Islands
- To B(PA) Or To Not B(PA): Regulating Endocrine Disruptors
- Bioluminescence truly looks like it is nothing short of sorcery, and although this naturally occurring phenomenon is well studied and explained, that does not take away from its beauty. · Fireflies of the Ocean: Lighting up the Dark with Science
- Part II - Cases of altruism in the animal kingdom · Charity cases in nature - when are animals more likely to be altruistic?
- Part I - Why true altruism is a rare behavior in the animal kingdom · Being selfish means staying alive
- Penguins and other strange things we study from space
- Pseudoreplication and the Art of Biological Statistics
- What is wrong with my tomatoes?...And other plant disease questions · Why did orange prices increase?
- How fecal microbiota transplants can improve lives and possibly save them · The Wonders of Fecal Transplants
- The scientific facts behind the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines · Calling the Shots - Discussing Vaccines
- 3D Printing for Fun and Science
- What is wrong with my tomatoes?...And other plant disease questions · What is Phytopathology?
- Medical Mysteries Still Surrounding Zika Virus
- More ›