Faced with rising seas, French Polynesia ponders floating islands

Low-lying, small islands of the Pacific are disproportionately at risk of losing land as sea level climbs

Image Credit: AP
Coral bleached white by heat stress in New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific. French Polynesia and the territory of New Caledonia are most at risk of seeing their islands entirely submerged, a 2013 study found.

Published: 14:25 March 20, 2017Gulf News

New York: When former Google software engineer Patri Friedman came up with the idea of building floating islands, he had in mind an unusual buyer: Libertarians, seeking freedom to live beyond the reach of governments.

But his futuristic plan has now found a new, motivated and very different audience — small islands halfway around the world that are slowly being submerged by sea level rise.

The Pacific nation of French Polynesia, looking for a potential lifeline as global warming takes hold, in January became the first country to sign an agreement to deploy the floating islands off its coast.

“Dreams belong to those who want to move forward and make them happen,” said Jean-Christophe Bouissou, the country’s housing minister, at a San Francisco ceremony where he inked a memorandum of understanding with The Seasteading Institute.

The institute — the name combines “sea” and “homesteading” — is the brainchild of Friedman and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, who helped found it and initially pumped more than $1 million (Dh3.67 million) into the floating islands project.

He is now no longer involved in the institute, but Friedman is taking forward the project.

With its possibility of creating new floating nation states, it has won converts among libertarians, whose ideology argues that greater freedom makes people thrive, said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington D.C.-based libertarian think tank.

But the possibility of keeping a sinking nation afloat clearly presents another opportunity for the technology, he said.

“If [island nations] feel threatened by the rising sea … they might view this as being the best option for their people,” Bandow said.

“Obviously, living on a seastead is very different from even living on an island. Nevertheless, if you figure there’s going to be relocation, maybe this is a better option to stay in the region as opposed to having to literally move en masse to another country,” he said.

Low-lying, small islands of the Pacific are disproportionately at risk of losing land as sea level climbs by an expected 26-82cm by the late 21st century, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In a 2013 study of more than 1,200 French-controlled islands, researchers at the Paris-Sud University found that French Polynesia and the territory of New Caledonia, also in the South Pacific, were most at risk of seeing their islands entirely submerged.

Bouissou, of French Polynesia, says he sees in floating cities the kind of outside-the-box thinking that could solve such a problem.


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