Is It Time to Stop Building Man-Made Islands?

By Michael Kasian
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Photo Courtesy: Richard Schneider/Wikimedia Commons

There are currently over 7.5 billion people on Earth, and the number is only getting bigger. As big a planet as Earth is, our most densely populated areas have to prepare for an impending overpopulation crisis. One of the most common proposals to combat the threat is to create man-made islands, which are far more common than you think.

Humans have developed man-made islands for thousands of years, some tracing as far back as the Neolithic era to aid in farming efforts. Nowadays, we whip up these landmasses for airports, military bases or even luxury condos. But as cities get more overcrowded, sea levels rise and countries desire more land of their own, advocates for our ecological resources are raising red flags. It bears asking: Is it safe to keep building man-made islands?

There Are Benefits in Modern Times for Man-Made Islands

One of the most famous collections of man-made islands in the present day is the extravagant Palm Jumeirah in the United Arab Emirates. As of 2016, the collection of islands has a number of malls, hotels and luxury homes with over 10,500 residents. It even has its own monorail for people to get from the islands to the mainland. It’s a stunning display of modern craftsmanship that could set an example for cities battling overpopulation, but this isn’t the typical use case for man-made islands. Some of them actually provide housing for far more delicate creatures.

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Photo Courtesy: BRAM VAN DE BIEZEN/AFP/Getty Images

In 2018, the Netherlands constructed five small islands in the Markermeer, one of Europe’s largest freshwater lakes. The Markermeer used to be rife with marine wildlife but over time turned into a lifeless gray wasteland. The newly engineered islands built within the lake are expertly designed specifically to attract plants and birds that have long since left the area. Within two years, experts have counted over 120 different kinds of plants developing on the shores, mostly brought in by windborne seeds. Meanwhile, many species of birds long thought to have left their local habitats are dropping in to nest and feast on the developing plankton.

And let’s not forget the ever-present threat of sea-level rise as a result of climate change. Coastal zones and island nations around the world face natural disasters and population displacement more than ever before. Many of these areas are considering their options to protect themselves from rising waters, and artificial land barriers like islands are potential options to keep their citizens safe.

Not Everyone Is a Fan of Man-Made Islands

While animal sanctuaries and housing alternatives are innovative achievements, they can come at a pretty hefty price. Landmass doesn’t just bubble up from underwater. The sand and dense materials to form artificial islands have to be moved from their natural habitats to build new ones, disrupting ecosystems in their paths.

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Photo Courtesy: Bernd Wüstneck/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB/Getty Images

The construction to create the Palm Jumeirah severely damaged the Persian Gulf’s marine habitat. Coral reefs were buried and oyster beds and fields of seagrass were wiped out, leaving many local species without their regular food sources. Back above water, local beaches are eroding now that the island has disrupted the area’s natural current. But hey, Palm Jumeirah has its own aquatic diving park on one of its islands, so why bother visiting its natural beach, right?

Speaking of sandy beaches, scientists warn that we may have to curb our use of sand for big endeavors like man-made islands. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, we mine for sand more than any other mineral, which has several dangerous consequences. Too much sand mining drastically alters wetlands, threatens endangered aquatic species, erodes land and threatens human life by compromising our food supply.

What’s in Store for Man-Made Islands

Back in Dubai, the Palm Jumeirah will eventually have some new island neighbors. Larger man-made islands Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira and a collection of 300 islands shaped like a map of the earth will be open for business just a monorail ride away from the Palm Jumeirah. They’re not necessarily following the warnings from scientists about obvious damage to the Persian Gulf already underway, and those exclusive islands are in high demand.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, Hong Kong, one of the densest cities on Earth, is running out of space for its 7.3 million residents. They’ve just proposed building an artificial island almost 5,500 acres wide to house up to 1.1 million crowded residents. In even more dire situations, the island nation of Kiribati proposed building its own new islands to save the country’s entire existence.

As our planet gets more and more overpopulated, building new lands seems like a logical option. But we can’t just build new islands wherever we want without thinking about the consequences of disrupting our natural resources so carelessly. So if you’re reading this and have $70 million and want your own custom island in the shape of Sweden, I ask that you please reconsider.