Why we are in “the era of artificial islands”

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 arrogance, to this effort.

We live in an “age of islands”, according to Alastair Bonnett, a social geographer at the University of Newcastle, UK. “New islands are being built in amounts Y to a scale never seen before“.

This new generation of islands is bolder, grander and potentially more harmful than anything erected our ancestorsBonnett writes in his book Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age Of Islands.

The geographer visited human-made islands around the world, exploring a variety of constructions.

He surveyed giant man-made archipelagos created by dumping millions of tons of sand into the ocean, concrete-encased “Frankenstein” atolls designed to consolidate military and political power, and dizzyingly tall oil rigs stretching hundreds of meters to the seafloor. .

While nature has brought back some man-made structures, that process takes time.

There is often little life below the waters surrounding man-made islands. “Too often, artificial islands are dead zones. Trying to bring life back is hard work,” writes Bonnett.

In places like the South China Sea, “reefs that were once pristine and untouched… have been horribly mutilated: framed and covered with concrete.”

However, Bonnett was drawn to these man-made creations, to understand how they were built and why they came into existence.

Whether you approve of them or not, they will tell future generations a story of how humanity saw itself at the beginning of the Anthropocene.

To find out what the era of artificial islands looks like, take a look at the following photographs that capture the most striking and impressive examples of these constructions in different parts of the world: from the Gulf States, through the seas of Asia, to the United Kingdom or United States coasts.

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The World (“The world”), similar to a world map in Dubai, was intended for the super-rich, but many of the islands are still made of sand, while others are for shops, hotels and apartments.
A dredger pumps sand onto an artificial island in Dubai, UAE.

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A ship in the Persian Gulf pumping out tons of sediment to gradually form an island.
A view of the artificial island known as The Pearl ("The Pearl") off the coast of Doha, Qatar.

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The artificial island The Pearl (“The pearl”), in Qatar, covers almost four million square meters and its construction cost billions.
The Island of the Swans in Paris photographed from the Eiffel Tower.

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The Isle of Swans in Paris was created in the early 19th century to protect the city’s bridges.
An aerial view of the Venetian Islands off the coast of Miami in Florida, USA.

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Built in the early 20th century, properties on Miami‘s six Venetian islands were sold while still underwater.
A satellite image of Palm Island and Hibiscus Island in Miami Beach, Florida, USA.

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The Venetian project was meant to be much bigger, but then came a hurricane, a housing bubble, and the Great Depression.
An aerial view of The Palm Island in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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120 million cubic meters of sand were needed to build The Palm (“The palm tree”), in Dubai.
A panoramic view of Balboa Island in Southern California, USA.

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Balboa Island was built on a salt marsh in California, and for years, residents suffered from poor infrastructure.
A satellite image of Balboa Island, Newport Beach, California, USA.

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Balboa Island is now one of the most expensive real estate markets in the US, populated by 3,000 people.
Aerial image of two offshore oil rigs, Cromarty Firth, Scotland, UK.

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While oil rigs don’t seem to qualify as islands, many rise from the seafloor, perched on columns taller than skyscrapers.
Oil platforms off the coast of Invergordon in Scotland.

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Oil rigs can look like alien structures from afar.
A satellite image of Subi Reef, an artificial island being developed in the South China Sea.

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The future of the islands? One clue is provided by the Subi Reef, part of a massive Beijing project to create islands in the South China Sea.
A view of the artificial island Qingdong-5 off the coast of Dongying in eastern China's Shandong province.