How a Floating Island Could Save Pacific Nation From Rising Seas

Residents of Kiribati considering mass relocation to futuristic Green Float island as climate change threatens their homes
MATTHEW DALTON Wall Street Journal 8 Dec 15;

PARIS—Some nations are building levees to confront rising sea levels that scientists say are caused by climate change. Others are moving people away from the coasts.

Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific, is considering a more extreme solution: relocating its entire population to a floating island that a Japanese engineering conglomerate hopes to build in the coming decades, using technology that has yet to be invented.

It’s one of several drastic responses Kiribati is considering to deal with the possibility that rising sea levels may make the low-lying nation of 100,000 people uninhabitable in a matter of decades.

“Faced with the option where we are underwater, a floating island is not a bad idea,” says Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati.

Kiribati’s search for a new home illustrates the threat climate changes poses to regions around the world—and the business opportunities awaiting companies that can help governments respond.

At the climate-change summit in Paris, negotiators are searching for a deal to ensure that tens of billions of dollars a year will be available for climate change preparation projects in the developing world, to help nations like Kiribati adapt.

Engineers at Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese firm, first outlined the floating-island plan in 2008. They first discussed the idea, dubbed Green Float, with Mr. Tong when the president made a diplomatic visit to Japan in 2009. Other meetings have followed.

For now, however, Shimizu’s floating island exists only on paper.

Technological innovations in the coming years could make the project possible from around 2030, says Hideo Imamura, spokesman for Shimizu. That is roughly when scientists say Kiribati’s population may be forced to move because of rising seas.

One of those innovations is the ability to produce metal alloys where the island is built, using magnesium extracted from seawater. Otherwise, transporting enormous quantities of metal from land would make the project prohibitively expensive, Mr. Imamura says.

Shimizu would also need to build mammoth engines to keep the island from drifting aimlessly around the ocean, the spokesman says. “Green Float is a kind of huge structure,” he explains. “It is really difficult to keep it in a certain area.”

Shimizu’s island would be self-sustaining, with a huge, thousand-meter-high funnel-shaped tower at the center serving as a giant plant factory. How much would the island cost? That would depend on how big an island Kiribati wants, says Mr. Imamura, who couldn’t provide a price per acre.

Other than the artificial island, Mr. Tong is considering two other plans: Fortifying the island’s current infrastructure against the sea or moving his people to another island, one which already exists.

Fiji said last week that it would take Kiribati’s population if the island becomes uninhabitable. Mr. Tong has already purchased land in Fiji for that purpose.

Mr. Tong says Kiribati’s time is running short. Big waves and unusually high tides are causing ever more damage to the island’s infrastructure.

“People associate being underwater with having to move,” Mr. Tong said. “No: we may have to move much earlier than that.”

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