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Artificial island

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The Flevopolder in the Netherlands is 970 km2 (375 sq mi) and is the largest island formed by reclaimed land in the world.

An artificial island or man-made island is an island that has been constructed by humans rather than formed through natural processes.[1] Other definitions may suggest that artificial islands are lands with the characteristics of human intervention in their format process, while others argue that artificial islands are created by expanding existing islets, constructing on existing reefs, or amalgamating several islets together. Although constructing artificial islands is not a modern phenomenon, there is no definite legal definition of it.[2] Artificial islands may vary in size from small islets reclaimed solely to support a single pillar of a building or structure to those that support entire communities and cities. Archaeologists argue that such islands were created as far back as the Neolithic era.[3] Early artificial islands included floating structures in still waters or wooden or megalithic structures erected in shallow waters (e.g. crannógs and Nan Madol discussed below).

In modern times, artificial islands are usually formed by land reclamation, but some are formed by flooding of valleys resulting in the tops of former knolls getting isolated by water (e.g., Barro Colorado Island). There are several reasons for the construction of these islands, which include residential, industrial, commercial, structural (for bridge pylons) or strategic purposes.[4] One of the world's largest artificial islands, René-Levasseur Island,[5][6] was formed by the flooding of two adjacent reservoirs. Technological advances have made it feasible to build artificial islands in waters up to 75 meters deep.[7] The size of the waves and the structural integrity of the island play a crucial role in determining the maximum depth.[7]


Despite a popular image of modernity, artificial islands actually have a long history in many parts of the world, dating back to the reclaimed islands of Ancient Egyptian civilization, the Stilt crannogs of prehistoric Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the ceremonial centers of Nan Madol in Micronesia and the still extant floating islands of Lake Titicaca.[8] The city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec predecessor of Mexico City that was home to 500,000 people when the Spaniards arrived, stood on a small natural island in Lake Texcoco that was surrounded by countless artificial chinamitl islands.

Reef Island off North Malaita

The people of Langa Langa Lagoon and Lau Lagoon in Malaita, Solomon Islands, built about 60 artificial islands on the reef including Funaafou, Sulufou, and Adaege.[9][10] The people of Lau Lagoon build islands on the reef as this provided protection against attack from the people who lived in the centre of Malaita.[11][12] These islands were formed literally one rock at a time. A family would take their canoe out to the reef which protects the lagoon and then dive for rocks, bring them to the surface and then return to the selected site and drop the rocks into the water. Living on the reef was also healthier as the mosquitoes, which infested the coastal swamps, were not found on the reef islands. The Lau people continue to live on the reef islands.[9]

Many artificial islands have been built in urban harbors to provide either a site deliberately isolated from the city or just spare real estate otherwise unobtainable in a crowded metropolis. An example of the first case is Dejima (or Deshima), created in the bay of Nagasaki in Japan's Edo period as a contained center for European merchants. During the isolationist era, Dutch people were generally banned from Nagasaki and Japanese from Dejima. Similarly, Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay beside New York City, a former tiny islet greatly expanded by land reclamation, served as an isolated immigration center for the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, preventing an escape to the city of those refused entry for disease or other perceived flaws, who might otherwise be tempted toward illegal immigration. One of the most well-known artificial islands is the Île Notre-Dame in Montreal, built for Expo 67.

The Venetian Islands in Miami Beach, Florida, in Biscayne Bay added valuable new real estate during the Florida land boom of the 1920s. When the bubble that the developers were riding burst, the bay was left scarred with the remnants of their failed project. A boom town development company was building a sea wall for an island that was to be called Isola di Lolando but could not stay in business after the 1926 Miami Hurricane and the Great Depression, dooming the island-building project. The concrete pilings from the project still stand as another development boom roared around them, 80 years later.

Largest artificial islands according to their size (reclaimed lands)[edit]

No. Name Size (km2) Location Year built Utilisation
1 Flevopolder
Flevoland, Netherlands
1955 (East) & 1968 (South)
Towns, agriculture
2 Hong Kong International Airport
Hong Kong
1998 (Airport Phase 1), 2017 (Border Control Point) & 2022 (Airport Phase 2)
Airport, border control point
3 The Pearl Island
Doha, Qatar
4 Kansai International Airport
Osaka, Japan
5 Port Island
Kobe, Japan
1980 (Phase 1) & 2009 (Phase 2)[14]
6 Chūbu Centrair International Airport
Tokoname, Japan
7 Ogizima[citation needed]
Yokohama, Japan
8 Rokko Island
Kobe, Japan
9 Fundão Island[15]
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Modern projects[edit]


Bahrain has several artificial islands including Northern City, Diyar Al Muharraq, and Durrat Al Bahrain. Named after the 'most perfect pearl' in the Persian Gulf, Durrat Al Bahrain is a US$6 billion joint development owned by the Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company and Kuwait Finance House Bahrain (KFH). The project is designed by the firm Atkins.[16] It consists of a series of 15 large artificial islands covering an area of about 5 km2 (54,000,000 sq ft)[17] and has six atolls, five fish-shaped islands, two crescent-shaped islands, and two more small islands related to the Marina area.


In 1969, the Flevopolder in the Netherlands was finished, as part of the Zuiderzee Works. It has a total land surface of 970 km2, which makes it by far the largest artificial island by land reclamation in the world. The island consists of two polders, Eastern Flevoland and Southern Flevoland. Together with the Noordoostpolder, which includes some small former islands like Urk, the polders form Flevoland, the 12th province of the Netherlands that almost entirely consists of reclaimed land.

An entire artificial archipelago, Marker Wadden has been built as a conservation area for birds and other wildlife, the project started in 2016.[18]


Artificial island construction process in Kaafu Atoll of Maldives in February 2019

Maldives have been creating various artificial islands to promote economic development and to address the threat of rising sea level. Hulhumalé island was reclaimed to establish a new land mass required to meet the existing and future housing, industrial and commercial development demands of the Malé region. The official settlement was inaugurated on May 12, 2004.


The Pearl Island is in the north of the Qatari capital Doha, home to a range of residential, commercial and tourism activities. Qanat Quartier is designed to be a 'Virtual Venice in the Middle East'. Lusail & large areas around Ras Laffan, Hamad International Airport & Hamad Port. The New Doha International Airport is the second largest artificial island built in the world, with a size of 22km2. The Pearl-Qatar is the third largest artificial island in the world, with a size of 13.9km2. The island was built in 2006, by main contractor DEME Group.

United Arab Emirates[edit]

The United Arab Emirates is home to several artificial island projects. They include the Yas Island, augmentations to Saadiyat Island, Khalifa Port, Al Reem Island, Al Lulu Island, Al Raha Creek, al Hudairiyat Island, The Universe and the Dubai Waterfront.[citation needed] Palm Islands (Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali, and Deira Island) and the World Islands off Dubai are created for leisure and tourism purposes.[19][20] The Burj Al Arab is on its own artificial island.[21] The Universe, Palm Jebel Ali, Dubai Waterfront, and Palm Deira are on hold.[when?]


Subi Reef being built by the PRC and transformed into an artificial island, May 2015

China has conducted a land reclamation project which had built at least seven artificial islands in the South China Sea off the coast of Palawan totaling 2000 acres in size by mid 2015.[22] One artificial island built on Fiery Cross Reef near the Spratly Islands is now the site of a military barracks, lookout tower and a runway long enough to handle Chinese military aircraft.[23]

A largely touristic and commercial project is the Ocean Flower Island project on Hainan island.


Kansai International Airport is the first airport to be built completely on an artificial island in 1994, followed by Chūbu Centrair International Airport in 2005, and both the New Kitakyushu Airport and Kobe Airport in 2006, Ordu Giresun Airport in 2016, and Rize-Artvin Airport in 2022

When Hong Kong International Airport opened in 1998, 75% of the property was created using land reclamation upon the existing islands of Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau. Currently China is building several airports on artificial islands, they include runways of Shanghai international Airport Dalian Jinzhouwan International Airport being built on a 21 square kilometer artificial island, Xiamen Xiang'an International Airport, Sanya Hongtangwan International Airport[24] designed by Bentley Systems which is being built on a 28 square kilometer artificial islands.

Environmental impact[edit]

Artificial islands negatively impact the marine environment. The large quantities of sand required to build these islands are acquired through dredging, which is harmful to coral reefs and disrupts marine life.[25] The increased amount of sand, sediment, and fine particles creates turbid conditions, blocking necessary UV rays from reaching coral reefs, creating coral turbidity (where more organic material is taken in by coral) and increasing bacterial activity (more harmful bacteria are introduced into coral).[26][27]

The construction of artificial islands also decreases the subaqueous area in surrounding waters, leading to habitat destruction or degradation for many species.[27]

Political status[edit]

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty (UNCLOS), artificial islands are not considered harbor works (Article 11) and are under the jurisdiction of the nearest coastal state if within 200 nautical miles (370 km) (Article 56).[28] Artificial islands are also not considered islands for purposes of having their own territorial waters or exclusive economic zones, and only the coastal state may authorize their construction (Article 60);[29] however, on the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, any "state" may construct artificial islands (Article 87).

The unrecognised micronation known as the Principality of Sealand (often shorted to simply "Sealand") is entirely on a single artificial island.

Greyzone warfare strategies[edit]

Over time, after World War II, several countries have been reported to have built artificial islands for strategic and military purposes. For instance, the Philippines and China have been reported to have constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea, primarily to assert territorial claims over the disputed waters. Similarly, Russia has allegedly done so in the Arctic, both for strategic and military purposes.[30] These reports are subject to ongoing political and diplomatic debates.


The island-building activities of China have been the subject of close examination by experts, who suggest that they are driven by strategic objectives.[31] The issue at the heart of the matter revolves around China's claim that its historical entitlement justifies its actions in the area. This is opposed by the legal argument supported by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is noteworthy that UNCLOS serves as the primary legal framework that governs the use and control of maritime zones. This convention establishes regulations on how coastal states can exercise their sovereignty over territorial waters, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and the continental shelf.[32]

China's claim to the South China Sea dates back to the 1940s. At that time, China recovered islands in the name of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation, and there was no reaction from Vietnam or any other state against it. In 1947, China drafted the eleven-dash line (also referred to as the nine-dash line) to outline the geographical scope of its authority over the South China Sea.[33] China began building islands in the 1980s, initially creating a series of minor military garrisons.[34] However, the reason why China faces criticism is because some of the reclaimed islands fall within the EEZs of other countries, which raises concerns about China's compliance with UNCLOS. Vietnam has also made a historical claim, pointing to its rule over the islands in the 17th century. The Philippines argues for its rights based on geographical proximity. Meanwhile, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the sea using EEZ as the basis of their claims.[35] UNCLOS Article 60 stipulates that naturally formed islands can generate EEZs, while artificial islands cannot.[36] Therefore, China's construction of artificial islands raises questions about whether they can legitimately claim an EEZ around those islands. UNCLOS also enshrines the freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZ of coastal states, which implies that all countries have the right to sail, fly, and conduct military exercises in those waters. Nevertheless, China has repeatedly challenged this principle by constructing artificial islands, imposing restrictions on navigation, and militarising the area.

Legal status of artificial islands by China[edit]

The legal implications surrounding China's island construction efforts present complex challenges. A key issue revolves around determining the classification of land masses as either rocks or seabed, which holds significant importance in these disputed cases. Maritime law establishes a clear distinction between land masses eligible for expansion into new island groups and those that do not qualify. According to this legal framework, low-tide elevations are considered part of the seabed and do not generate a territorial sea, EEZ, or continental shelf. However, they serve as a reference point for measuring the entitlements of nearby rocks or islands. Rocks, unlike islands, lack the capacity to sustain human habitation or support economic activity. While they generate a territorial sea, they do not establish an EEZ or continental shelf. UNCLOS stipulates that both rocks and islands must be naturally formed and remain above water at high tide.[37][38][39]

The Spratly Islands have been a subject of contention among multiple countries, including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and China. China's claim to the islands, despite entering the dispute relatively late, has been supported by arguments asserting historical presence and construction activities on the islands as a basis for their claim.[40] In terms of international law, land reclamation itself is not explicitly prohibited. There is no specific rule within international law that prohibits any country from engaging in land reclamation at sea. The legality of such activities primarily depends on their location in relation to adjacent land territories. Within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea, a country holds the right to reclaim land as it falls under its sovereign authority. However, beyond this 12 nautical mile limit, the country must consider whether its actions conform to the rights and jurisdictions recognised by UNCLOS. Reclamation activities conducted between 12 and 200 nautical miles are considered part of the process of establishing and utilising artificial islands, installations, and structures, governed by specific provisions within UNCLOS. It is worth mentioning that artificial islands may include stationary oil rigs.[41] Coastal states are permitted to undertake reclamation within designated areas as long as they fulfil their obligation to inform other countries and respect their rights, as outlined by UNCLOS rules. However, any artificial islands created through this process are restricted to maintaining a 500-meter safety zone around them and must not obstruct international navigation.

Hybrid warfare and China's Greyzone tactics[edit]

Hybrid warfare is understood as a form of conflict that combines conventional and irregular tactics.[42] Hybrid warfare may also be defined as a multifaceted strategy aimed at destabilising a functioning state and dividing its society. This comprehensive definition portrays hybrid strategy as a versatile and complex approach utilising a combination of conventional and unconventional means, overt and covert activities, involving military, paramilitary, irregular, and civilian actors across different domains of power. The ultimate objective of hybrid warfare is to exploit vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to achieve geopolitical and strategic goals.

Some argue, that China's greyzone tactics mainly aim to improve its geopolitical position in a peaceful manner. In contrast to the greyzone tactics used by Russia in Crimea in 2014, China's approach differs significantly. One supporting argument is that the majority of the activities occur in uninhabited areas at sea, which contradicts a definition of hybrid warfare that suggests it is targeted at populations. Additionally, China's objective is not to destabilise other states, but rather to enhance its national security by gaining control over regional waters. Furthermore, China is not aiming to seize control from another power, but rather seeks to establish a dominant security and political position in the region. It is worth noting that China employs unarmed or lightly armed vessels deliberately, as they are unlikely to resort to deadly force.[31]

However, others argue that China's greyzone tactics can be classified as hybrid warfare. Some viewpoints contend that China's establishment of military bases on artificial islands serves as a means to assert their territorial claims through the use of force.[1] This approach is referred to as the Cabbage strategy, wherein a contested area is encircled by multiple layers of security to deny access to rival nations, ultimately solidifying their claim.

While there is no consensus on China's motives behind the creation of artificial islands, it is widely acknowledged that China aims to bolster its power and influence in the region. These actions contribute to the escalating tensions in the South China Sea.


See also[edit]


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