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No. 2845:
Floating Islands

Today, we float. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

isle picture

The island nation of the Maldives is in many ways unique. Situated on a remote underwater plateau in the Indian Ocean, its land area is about the size of New York City's borough of Staten Island, but with one big difference: it's made up of 1200 tiny islands dotted over an expanse of water the size of South Carolina. These coral and sand keys are home to lush vegetation but rise to a maximum height of just around six feet above the surrounding waters. This leaves the nation's 300,000 inhabitants with an overriding concern: what to do if rising sea levels cause their country to one day disappear beneath the waves.


In 2008 the Maldives' president proposed saving enough money to buy land elsewhere and move the country, maybe to India or Sri Lanka. Isn't that a thought. The money's there thanks to the thriving tourism industry. But would citizens simply pack up and move?

Another option is dredging offshore sand and using it to raise the level of the islands. Some of that's already being done, but it doesn't solve the long term problem, and it damages the pristine environment.

But by far the most dramatic approach was put forward in August of 2012 when the government announced it would build floating islands. Crazy as that may sound, the idea has potential.

Rising water doesn't pose a threat to floating islands since they rise along with it. A passing tsunami would simply cause a gentle, momentary bob as the swell passed underneath. 

And the building technology's pretty straightforward. Concrete mixed with polystyrene foam makes for a very stable platform. On a smaller scale — as foundations for houses and small buildings — floating islands have fared quite well.

But Maldivians are pushing the envelope. The country has many floating island projects underway, but by far the most audacious is a floating luxury housing development complete with an 18 hole golf course. Sections of the course will be connected by glass-enclosed underwater tunnels, where golfers can gaze upon marine life from their electric carts. Plans are to complete construction of the islands in the Middle East or Asia and then simply float them to their destination. Total cost? Half a billion dollars.

golf course location

For now, the Maldivians' investment in floating islands is focused on high-end development for its decidedly high-end clientele. Really. A floating golf course in the middle of the Indian Ocean? But floating islands have a lot going for them. It's not clear exactly what niches they'll find — what sizes, shapes, locations, and uses. In one or two-hundred years, who knows how the surface of our most bountiful resource — our oceans — will be transformed. But it's eye opening to ponder the possibilities ...

golf course

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music) 

Notes and references:

For a related episode, see THE MALDIVES.

More information on the Maldivian floating islands can be found at:

MJ. Henley. 'The Last Days of Paradise.' The Guardian, November 10, 2008. See also: Accessed November 27, 2012.

Maldives Facts. From the National Geographic website: Accessed November 27, 2012.

N. Owano. Maldives Floating Island Masterplan Tests the Waters. August 12, 2012. From the website: Accessed November 27, 2012.

M. Prigg. The Floating Future of the Maldives: Complete with '320m Golf Course and Luxury 'Workers Island.' August 13, 2012. From the Daily Mail website: Accessed November 27, 2012.

The aerial picture of the Maldives is from a NASA website. The picture of the island is from the website of the Maldives government tourist office. The remaining pictures are from the website of Dutch Docklands International.

Thanks to Dr. Jean Krchnak of the University of Houston's Hines College of Architecture for bringing floating islands to my attention.

This episode was first aired on November 29, 2012