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Here’s How to Lay Claim to a Brand New Island

It’s pretty complicated (surprise!)

Palau in Cocos Island National Park, Costa Rica — already claimed (Bernard Radvaner/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Everyone dreams of having their own private island — to judge from the listings online, the how-to guides on acquiring one and the fact that even a party game owns one. Most private islands have been around long enough that some country or another has them listed and named on a map. But how exactly does one go about getting a brand new island, the type no one has set foot on before?

The first step (well, even before you take the first step) is to make sure that the island is stable. New islands can be belched up by a volcano, eroded away from an existing landmass or even left behind by a retreating glacier. All these processes come with some instability. Take the new island that has just formed off the coast of Tonga.

The Hunga Tonga volcano’s latest eruption started in December, and now there’s a 1,640-foot-long island in the water. A hotel owner from Tonga, Gianpiero Orbassano, just recently traveled out to the island to see it. "It felt quite safe - the only difficult thing was getting out of the boat on to the island. The surface was hot, you could feel it," he told BBC. "And climbing it was hard in the bright sun."

Experts didn’t really condone Orbassano’s expedition: Matt Waston, a researcher at the University of Bristol, explained that such new islands are very unstable. "It will be very loose and unconsolidated material," he says. "It's formed by fragmentation of magma, so it's basically small pieces of rock on top of each other that have formed an island."

Residents of Tonga are familiar with the formation and destruction of new islands. Many crop up only to be washed away by the waves and tides. Mark Hay writes for Vice:

In March 2009, the same volcano and another on Hunga Ha'apai erupted, forming a smaller landmass that connected to the existing island, but it was not very stable. In fact, Tongans apparently know the existing islets as the islands that jump back and forth due to the frequent seismic activity and subsequent erosion in the shallow waters. The scoria that comes up through local vents just doesn't tend to stick hard or build fast enough.

So if the island sticks around, how does one lay claim to it? Well, Tonga will have a better claim to this one than anyone else. Hay reports that nations can claim everything within 12 miles of their own coastline, and archipelago nations can claim anything falling in between their existing islands. 

Even if an island is farther out — 200 miles away from the coast — nations can still lay claim with the Law of the Sea (also declared by the U.N.). But beyond that radius, the island is fair game. Hay reports:

We saw that play out in Antarctica in the last century, where nations all rushed to plant a flag first, establish outposts to show they could control their claimed territory, and get other nations to recognize their claims to muscle out others trying to build up the same territory. That's the logic behind Denmark's Sirius patrol in Greenland, in which small, elite military teams dogsled across the uninhabited northeast coast (an 8,699-mile stretch of tundra and ice) in regular circuits essentially just to show the world they're still capable of exerting physical control over their landmass, so nobody had better try to shove in and take it from them.

The whole process of planting flags and muscling out the competition can get a bit complicated, as you might expect. And new islands are rare. So if you do happen to see one, maybe think about how much you really need it. Do you need it more than the people of island nations like Kiribati, whose entire home country is threatened by rising seas due to climate change? Didn’t think so.

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