Monday, January 4, 2016


Satellite picture of the Atafu atoll in Tokelau in the Pacific Ocean Image: NASA
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 Japan is taking a lesson from the Dragon. China's artificial islands one now featuring a functional landing strip, are center pieces in the struggle for control of the South and East China Seas. While China, the Dragon is spending a fortune dredging military bases out of the sea, the Rising Sun is growing an island in a bath tub. The "bathtub island" is called Okinotorishima (translated loosely as "Distant Bird Island" , a semi submerged atoll in the Philippine Sea which Japan regards as its southernmost point. The Dragon says it's no island just a rock. Of course the dragon has yet to see a rock it wasn't willing to convert to an "island" if it furthered the Dragon's outrageous claims. 

The Atoll is a coral formation atop a slowly sinking sea mount. The land on the sea mount  is slowly eroding as those things are wont to do but the coral would keep adding layers of coral skeletons keeping the "island's " turf more of less above water at least some of the time. Faster rising sea levels, and the occasional typhoon are taking a toll on the "island's" elevation. Japan of course wants to regrow the reef vice transporting millions of tons of rocks and soils to the area in a hyper expensive attempt to raise an artificial islands atop the sinking natural one. Japan's success or failure at regrowing the reef will have serious repercussions in the on going law fare with  the Dragon over the size and shape of their respective ocean exclusive economic zones (EEZs)

 The bathtub previously mentioned and playing such a vital role in this saga is located in a green house at Japan's Deep Seawater Research Institute on the island of Kumejima. The tub is full of juvenile coral from Okinotorishima as well as harvested coral eggs.  The plan is to tube raise the infant corals for a year improving their chances of survival and then to transplant them back on their native reef. The Japanese have already successfully grown and transplanted coral, the challenge is to learn how to do it on such a scale that the growth out on the natural reef can keep up with t he faster increase in the rise of sea level. The Japanese oceanographers concede that no amount of transplantation is likely to revive a sinking reef by itself. However,  combined with other elements it can be tool in island revival, and is certainly an important tool for restoring coral atolls around the world. There are roughly 500 atolls in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Nations like The Marshalls Islands, Kiribati, and the Maldives consists almost exclusively of coral atolls. In recent years there has been a die off of nearly 40% of the world's corals. But in the case of Okinotorishima the imperative is military and economic.

 Under UNCLOS ( the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) only an island can generate an EEZ, rocks don't qualify. Nothing says "island" like habitation. Size does matter in this game and China has been spending fortunes on enlarging semi submerged reefs and starting human habitation on them in the form of fishing stations, light houses, and military bases. Where an "improved island" stands in the eyes of the international tribunals is yet to be determined. Japan, however can't afford to wait on the first court ruling. So the coral grows in the bath tub on Kumejima and atop the dead coral at Okinotorishima. Never has so much depended on living beings so tiny.

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