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Humans have engaged in engineering on a massive scale for thousands of years, but only recently have we gained the ability to truly alter the face of the Earth. The one human structure visible from space when John Glenn looked out the window of Freedom 7 was China’s Great Wall. Today, in addition to that barely distinguishable wavering line, International Space Station crew members can look down and see tiny palm trees sprouting into the Persian Gulf, or even locate themselves on the world’s largest map.

Dubai, a member of the United Arab Emirates, is home to newly-created Palm Islands. The first group, Jumeirah will be completed in 2008. Two more, Jebel Ali and Deira, are being built on an even grander scale. All three complexes are built to resemble enormous palm trees, providing a distinctive view from above. An enormous representation of a projected globe comprised of 300 separate islands, called the World Islands, is also under construction. There, customers will be able to purchase their own miniature version of their home country, provided they can foot the bill.

We have been building islands and expanding our coastlines, collectively known as reclaiming land, for thousands of years, though for decidedly more mundane purposes. The crannogs of ancient Scotland and Ireland constructed islands in shallow lochs to provide protection and easy access to fisheries. Floating islands have been home to residents of Lake Titicaca for thousands of years. And Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, was surrounded by a flotilla of small floating islands called chinampas. These tiny islands provided vital farmland for what was then one of the world’s most populous cities. More recently, artificial islands have been used in order to isolate segments of a city’s population. For instance, European merchants in 17th century Nagasaki were confined to the island of Dejima, as were immigrants to the United States at New York’s Ellis Island.

Modern cities most commonly reclaim land in order to provide valuable real estate for new development in crowded urban centers. Dozens of cities including Chicago, New York, and Hong Kong have expanded into their waterways. Much of the modern Netherlands was originally shallow inlets that were diked and drained by Dutch windmills. Finding large enough tracts of land for large facilities such as airports or landfills is also a primary driver of land reclamation. Asian coastal communities are building offshore islands in order to build new airports, such as the Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay, Japan.

The principle behind creating an artificial island is very simple: dump large volumes of material into the water. The material can be most anything, including dredged sediment, rocks, cement, soil, or even trash. Of course the technical details of building an island to safely support billions of dollars of development is far from simple, as Japanese engineers learned with the Kansai Airport island. After excavating three mountains to fill a one square mile rectangular island to a depth of 100 feet, the island’s surface sunk almost 25 feet and had to be refilled. To compensate for their now more slowly sinking island, Japanese engineers built the Kansai Airport on expandable columns. So far, the island and its airport have survived both the 1995 Kobe earthquake and a powerful typhoon in 1998.

Aside from the engineering challenges, changing the Earth’s surface so dramatically raises serious environmental concerns. Many of the world’s fisheries are anchored in the shallow estuarine bays such as those diked and drained by the Dutch. The Kansai airport is located in a deep water area carefully selected to minimize ecological damage, yet it still altered ocean currents and changed the surrounding marine environment. Dubai’s artificial archipelagos are wonders of scale and ingenuity situated on what was once a marine ecological reserve. Their builders have taken great strides to recreate new artificial reefs to replace those buried by the islands, but ecological diversity will undoubtedly suffer in the short term.

As our population expands we will continue to seek relief in the seemingly limitless bounds of the open ocean. Soaring property values in both wealthy and rapidly developing nations will increasingly make island construction more attractive despite the enormous cost and effort required. If the experiments in Japan and Dubai prove successful technically, economically, and environmentally, cities all over the world may begin to move their airports and resorts offshore. But in our ongoing effort to reshape our world, let us hope that we learn our lessons well, for Nature’s forces can be powerful enemies.

Further Reading:
Wikipedia article on Artificial Islands
Home page of Dubai developers Nakheel Inc.
History of the Kansai International Airport