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Island real estate is exclusive in North America. Some of the most scenic and desirable North American coastal lands have been inhabited for many generations. Places such as the Florida Keys and Mercer Island, east of Seattle, demand top dollar for real estate. What if we started making more islands wherever we wanted them? What could go wrong?
According to the United Nations, about 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 62 miles of a coast (http://bit.ly/3J5gPoD). Most civilizations in modern history are strategically organized around water resources. Urban sprawl often moves inland, but likely because the coastline is already spoken for. In the last two decades, more nations have created islands in open water to accommodate expansion.
In Osaka, Japan, the ocean was the ideal site for a new airport. In 1994, the Kansai International Airport opened in the bay south of the Osaka metropolis. Today, it is 38 feet lower than the elevation of the runway on opening day. The ground sank much faster than expected. The airport is now only 13 feet above sea level. By 2056, the island could subside all the way down to sea level.
While the original cost of the project was $8 billion, it is estimated that an additional $12 billion has been spent to keep this island airport afloat. For example, a seawall was built around the island to prevent the biggest waves from swamping the runway. Despite years of feasibility research and a literal mountain of land to build this island, it is sinking back into the bay.
Despite the warnings of Osaka, the trend of building island airports continues. In a 2018 article (http://bit.ly/3YsJSZa), Smithsonian Magazine notes: “This October, a new airport will open north of Istanbul, Turkey, on a foundation of muck from a former Black Sea marshland. In the Maldives archipelago, a sprawling expansion to its capital city airport is rising from the Indian Ocean. In 2020, a runway will open in an estuary of the Brisbane River in Australia, atop ground that engineers say is no more stable than toothpaste. Like dozens of airports already built on land reclaimed from water, those airports will sink. The only question is how fast.”
Airports aren’t the only new islands popping up. Off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, there are a few residential, artificial archipelagos. In 1999, the five-star Burj Al Arab hotel opened, which looks similar to a big white sail emerging from the Persian Gulf. This hotel was dwarfed by developments built in the following decade.
If you look at the coast of Dubai from satellite images now, you will see two enormous palm-tree-shaped islands and a cluster of shapes resembling the landmasses of the world.
Dubai is one of the luxury centers of the world where creativity isn’t limited by money. However, the palm tree islands and “The World” are at risk of sinking. The World is the name of a 300-island construction project in the Persian Gulf, east of the palm tree islands, that loosely resembles the continents of Earth.
However, erosion and liquefaction are geological forces that aren’t swayed by billions of dollars. Since the construction of these artificial islands, the coastline currents have pulled some of the seabed sand back into the water faster than anticipated. Much of the new island real estate is yet to be developed (http://bit.ly/3Li1kwi).
Utah Lake Debate
Recently, in my home state of Utah, there was a proposal to create a string of islands in Utah Lake. This freshwater lake is about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. The lake is about 150 square miles in surface area, but isn’t very deep. Similar to the Great Salt Lake, it is a remnant of Lake Bonneville, which was about the size of Lake Michigan about 18,000 years ago.
Developers are lobbying to dredge Utah Lake seven feet deeper and use the sediment to build 20,000 acres of island developments with gorgeous views of the Wasatch Mountains. In October 2022, the Department of Natural Resources advised Utah legislators that the project would “violate the state’s obligations to manage the lakebed in the public trust, according to the agency’s legal analysis.”
According to the group proposing this development, dredging the lake is the way to right the wrongs of human impact on Utah Lake. Its website states (www.lakerestorationsolutions.com): “The Utah Lake Restoration Project is an opportunity to correct [more than] 150 years of human-caused degradation of Utah Lake — making it a clean, healthy body of water once again. Long-term, sustainable solutions will also increase water availability, mitigate drought effects, and restore habitats for native plants and animals.”
The Utah Lake Restoration project has not received the green light from Utah officials. Yet, as of January 2023, the developers are still trying to push ahead. They sued the Department of Natural Resources for mishandling a feasibility evaluation (http://bit.ly/3J6fOwV).
Is there an ideal place to build new islands? Most coastal cities have expanded their shores further into the water as an extension or peninsula of more solid ground. Building billion-dollar islands solely on top of muck, surrounded by water currents, isn’t a sound strategy. While it would be great if we could plop new islands onto prime coastal locations, greed isn’t always feasible.
Using an obscene amount of energy to dredge oceans and lakes to build soft-foundation construction projects at the surface of rising seas or evaporating lakes isn’t a good long-term strategy for urban development. In most of the artificial island examples, the themes of going over budget and sinking are common.
In some ways, it is like trying to dig yourself out of a hole: The more you dig, the further from the surface you become. Using an unfathomable amount of fossil fuels to dredge sand to build islands literally makes them sink faster.
If you want to hear more about artificial islands, follow @geodesaurus on Instagram for concise coverage on interesting hydrology topics. l
Max Rohr is the education and industry engagement manager with Caleffi North America. After graduating from the University of Utah, he began his manufacturing career at the Caleffi headquarters in Italy. Since then, he worked for several HVAC/P industry companies in the manufacturers’ rep and wholesale distribution channels before returning to Caleffi in 2020. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Instagram @caleffi_na_max.
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