In Brief
For years, China has been constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea. Now, the country has unveiled its largest ship designed to dredge up sand for this purpose to date.

Magic Island Maker

Reports from Chinese state media have revealed the purpose of a huge ship constructed in the country, which is being billed as a “magic island maker.” The boat, named Tian Kun Hao, is apparently Asia’s largest dredging vessel.

Tian Kun Hao is a larger version of the ships China has used in the past to create artificial islands in the South China Sea. This new vessel is capable of digging at a rate of 6,000 cubic meters per hour, which is roughly equivalent to three standard swimming pools.

Artificial islands are produced by digging up enormous quantities of sand, then depositing the matter over an existing island, an appropriate rock formation, or even a coral reef. With this process it’s possible to construct a landmass capable of supporting the likes of military bases and air strips.

This practice has been used extensively by China, and is also popular in Dubai (the Palm Jumeirah archipelago being a particularly well-known example of the technique). However, similar efforts to modify a landmass are popular all over the world: certain estuaries in the U.S., Europe, and Australia have had over 50 percent of their coastline augmented with artificial structures.

Out to Sea

Despite China’s eagerness to construct artificial islands, there have been various criticisms leveled at the practice. These concerns go beyond the country’s contentious claims to the areas of land, as well as its tendency to ignore criticism of the resulting military facilities, which have been raised by the U.S. and others.

For one, there are concerns that the landmasses might not be particularly stable. Recent reports have indicated that a set of artificial islands in Dubai designed to resemble the world map (a project carried out by the developer behind the Palm Jumeirah archipelago) has been degrading since as far back as 2011.

Meanwhile, there are serious concerns about what effect the process of building out into the water may have on existing ecosystems. To that end, it’s been argued that constructing artificial islands is a new form of urban sprawl.

Artificial islands could potentially provide space to meet the agricultural and residential needs of our growing populations. However, it’s crucial that we use this technology with the proper care and consideration.

Whether we’re talking about land or sea, unchecked construction can cause massive harm to the surrounding ecosystem. There are alternatives, however, like building floating cities or even heading underwater, which could turn out to be more ecologically viable.