Sucking Sand To Save The Land (Or Make New Land)

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An artificial island built to be part of a bridge from Hong Kong to Macau. Image from Google Earth (used with permission).

One day, there’s a ring of reefs in the ocean, or an atoll. Coral, fish, various invertebrates, and many types of plants call the place home. The next day, it’s raining sand. First, it starts to fill in the cracks and voids in the coral. Plants get buried, and then even some of the fish. As the sand keeps falling and falling, everything that can’t move fast enough gets buried. Eventually the sand is so deep, it breaks the top of the water.

The fish and others that do get away find themselves having to swim out into deeper waters to survive, but aren’t equipped to live anywhere but the reef, and thus die of starvation or predation.

This is happening day after day in the South China Sea and many other places around the world. For a variety of reasons, governments and private entities are building up a massive fleet of ships, according to a report by MIT Technology Review. These big buildups in artificial land-building equipment, mostly led by China, are fueled by specially constructed dredgers that suck up loose sand from the seafloor and push the sand into pipes to be deposited elsewhere. In some cases, the sand gets shot right next to the ship, and in others, the sand gets sent into long pipes or carried by the ships to places miles away. Some of the ships are truly massive, rivaling the largest tanker ships in length, but exceeding them in width.

In China’s case, the goal is to create new land in strategic places. A good peaceful example of this is an artificial island that’s part of a new bridge connecting Macau and Hong Kong. Also, in many places, China is investing in other countries by sending the ships to help developing countries construct new land and ocean infrastructure. These moves are not always made strictly out of altruism — as promising help to flooding island nations to get them to switch allegiances can lead to strategic advantages.

In some cases, existing islands aren’t enough, because they’re simply not in the right place to advance Beijing’s strategic goals. That’s why they’ve spent decades (and engaged in naval combat on a few occasions) to capture seemingly worthless (at least to humans) atolls and other places where the water is relatively shallow. Now, with increasing wealth and ability to build massive dredging ships, they’re burying the atolls and turning them into small islands. Once the mud dries and they get a chance to level it off, they build runways, missile launching platforms, and whole bases to control the waters around the area.

An artificial island built on reefs in the South China Sea. Image from Google Earth (used with permission).

In response, the United States regularly runs naval patrols near these islands to signal that they don’t see the area’s valuable sea lanes as Chinese territory, but accidents and near-battles have occurred.

While the strategic moves of great world powers isn’t really on topic for CleanTechnica readers, it does prove a more valuable point: the ability to add land in strategic spots is proving to be valuable enough for superpowers to fight about.

Fleets of dredging and sand-pumping ships are only going to become a bigger deal as sea levels rise. Even if we were to stop the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases tonight, the effects of what’s already hanging in the air will continue to be felt for centuries, and sea levels will continue to rise. Countries that can make new land, raise existing land, and do other things to engineer their way out of the consequences will fare better than countries that don’t have the means.

Nobody is feeling the pain more than low-lying island nations, and they know that the problems are only beginning. Lacking big economies, they’re increasingly looking for allies that can help fund solutions. Even without literally moving dirt to make new islands, other solutions are all expensive, including floating islands and oil rig–like structures.

While humanity has already signed itself up for some of the consequences, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The worse this is in the coming decades and centuries, the more all of this is going to cost.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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