Why we are in ‘the age of artificial islands’

BBC

We are building more islands than ever before. In the latest edition of our photographic series Anthropo-Scene, we explore the striking results of humanity’s attempts to colonise the world’s lakes and oceans with new land.H

Hundreds of years ago, the Lau people of the Solomon Islands built around 80 artificial islands in a lagoon, placing bits of coral and rock into the water, piece by piece. It took them centuries.

Throughout history, humans have sought to create dry land within lakes, rivers and oceans, which they could then populate. But the 21st Century has brought a new ambition – and perhaps a touch of hubris – to this endeavour.

We are living in an “age of islands”, according to the social geographer Alastair Bonnett of Newcastle University, UK. “New islands are being built in numbers and on a scale never seen before.”

This new generation of islands are bolder, grander – and potentially more damaging – than anything our ancestors constructed, writes Bonnett in his book Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age Of Islands.

The geographer visited human-made islands all over the world, exploring a variety of constructions. Giant artificial archipelagos, created by pouring millions of tonnes of sand into the ocean. Concrete-coated “Frankenstein” atolls, designed to consolidate military and political power. And dizzyingly tall oil rigs extending hundreds of metres down to the seafloor.

While some artificial structures have been reclaimed by nature, that process takes time. Often, there’s little life beneath the waters surrounding man-made islands. “All too often artificial islands are dead zones. Trying to make them live again is hard work,” writes Bonnett. In places like the South China Sea, “once pristine and untouched reefs…have been horribly mutilated: squared off and concreted over”.

But nonetheless, Bonnett found himself drawn to these artificial creations, to try and understand how they were built, and why they came to be. Whether you approve of them or not, they will tell future generations a story of how humanity saw itself in the early Anthropocene.

A traditional house on an artificial island in Lau Lagoon in the Solomon Islands (Credit: Alamy)

A traditional house on an artificial island in Lau Lagoon in the Solomon Islands (Credit: Alamy)

A ship in the Persian Gulf pumping tonnes of sediment into the sea, gradually growing an island (Credit: Getty)

A ship in the Persian Gulf pumping tonnes of sediment into the sea, gradually growing an island (Credit: Getty)Dubai's map-like The World was intended for the super-wealthy, but many of the islands remain sand, while others are for retail, hotels and apartments (Credit: Getty Images)

Dubai’s map-like The World was intended for the super-wealthy, but many of the islands remain sand, while others are for retail, hotels and apartments (Credit: Getty Images)The man-made Pearl island, in Qatar, spans nearly 4 million sq metres and cost billions to build (Credit: Alamy)

The man-made Pearl island, in Qatar, spans nearly 4 million sq metres and cost billions to build (Credit: Alamy)Swan Island in Paris was created in the early 1800s to protect the city's bridges (Credit: Getty Images)

Swan Island in Paris was created in the early 1800s to protect the city’s bridges (Credit: Getty Images)Built in the early 20th Century, property on the six Venetian Islands of Miami was sold while they were still underwater (Credit: Alamy)

Built in the early 20th Century, property on the six Venetian Islands of Miami was sold while they were still underwater (Credit: Alamy)The Venetian project was meant to be much bigger – but then a hurricane, property bubble and the Great Depression happened (Credit: Alamy)

The Venetian project was meant to be much bigger – but then a hurricane, property bubble and the Great Depression happened (Credit: Alamy)The Palm, in Dubai, required 120 million cubic metres of sand to build (Credit: Getty Images)

The Palm, in Dubai, required 120 million cubic metres of sand to build (Credit: Getty Images)Balboa Island in California was built on a mudflat, and for years residents struggled with poor infrastructure (Credit: Alamy)

Balboa Island in California was built on a mudflat, and for years residents struggled with poor infrastructure (Credit: Alamy)Now it's one of the most expensive real estate markets in the US, populated by 3,000 people (Credit: Alamy)

Now it’s one of the most expensive real estate markets in the US, populated by 3,000 people (Credit: Alamy)While oil rigs might not seem to qualify as islands, many emerge from the seafloor, sitting on columns taller than skyscrapers (Credit: Getty Images)

While oil rigs might not seem to qualify as islands, many emerge from the seafloor, sitting on columns taller than skyscrapers (Credit: Getty Images)From the dry land of a Scottish village, an oil rig can seem like an alien structure… (Credit: Getty Images)

From the dry land of a Scottish village, an oil rig can seem like an alien structure… (Credit: Getty Images)…but there are few structures more alien-like than the Red Sands Fort in the Thames Estuary, UK, built for anti-aircraft guns in WW2 (Credit: Alamy)

…but there are few structures more alien-like than the Red Sands Fort in the Thames Estuary, UK, built for anti-aircraft guns in WW2 (Credit: Alamy)The future of islands? Subi Reef is one clue, part of a huge Chinese island-making project in the South China Sea (Credit: Getty Images)

The future of islands? Subi Reef is one clue, part of a huge Chinese island-making project in the South China Sea (Credit: Getty Images)As well as accruing geopolitical power, artificial islands are also helping China access oil, like this one called Qingdong-5 (Credit: Getty Images)

As well as accruing geopolitical power, artificial islands are also helping China access oil, like this one called Qingdong-5 (Credit: Getty Images)

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