Here Today, Gone Tomorrow


Ephemeral Islands –

In our rush to retaliate against Libya for killing American servicemen in Berlin in 1986, we first bombed an underwater volcano.

Ends up this particular piece of sometime real estate has been above water several times, only to succumb to the forces of erosion.

The volcano’s tip is an ephemeral island, flirting with sea level. The first documented emergence of the island dates from the First Punic War in the mid-Third Century B.C. It is also reported to have surfaced in 10 B.C.; in both cases, it re-submerged soon after.

The volcano continued its on and off again eruptions, and then, in 1831 it emerged from the sea and stay there.  Four nations planted flags on the “island”, each in turn cutting down the flag of the other.

But the material spewed out by the volcano turned out to be particularly susceptible to erosion. At its greatest extent, Ferdinandea had a circumference of over 15,000 feet and an area of about 1 square mile, but as the eruption subsided, it quickly crumbled back into the sea. On Dec. 17, two Sicilian observers filed a missing island report: Ferdinandea was gone — and with it, the diplomatic headache of adjudicating a four-way claim over a newly emerged island.

On the other side of the world another piece of rock is causing headaches for Japan.

Okinotorishima  is a reef about three miles long and one mile wide that only barely breaks the surface: at high tide, it sticks out no more than 5 inches above sea level. But that was enough for Japan to claim the atoll as its southernmost possession.

As agreed at the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the coast, but states can exercise certain rights over the natural resources in a 200-mile zone beyond their shores – whether those shores are on the mainland, the largest island or the smallest, most remote spit of land in the country’s holdings.

If and when these islands are submerged by rising seas, Japan will lose up to 150,000 square miles of territory – and all the fish and minerals it includes.  China is already disputing Japan’s claims to this collection of “submarine rocks.”

Both of these rocky outcrops have major consequences for the nations that claim them.  Minerals, fish, and economic opportunity for the nation are at stake, and completely out of their control.


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