When a new land mass pops up like the one off the coast of Tonga, who does it belong to and how is it named?
Earlier this week we got our first glimpse at the world's newest island thanks to photos taken by a team of amateur explorers. Led by 63-year-old Gianpiero Orbassano, the group became the first to set foot on the as-of-yet unnamed landmass, recently created by an underground volcano between the uninhabited Tongan islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai. The island is about 1.1 miles by 0.9 miles, contains a green lake that smells like sulfur (ass), and is still a little warm.
"The island is double the size of Fafa," The Daily Mail quoted Orbassano as saying, referring to the island where he owns a resort. "There is a lot of rick, it's not just ash. It looks like the moon."
This island has been building up since December 19, 2014, when the underwater volcano started spewing ash and debris out of the water, stripping the vegetation off the two neighboring islands. By January 19, the Pleiades satellite had captured the first broad images of the eruption, soon followed by photos from the water taken by Tongan media, which showed a growing mass of scoria—a type of dark and porous volcanic rock—forming around the then still-erupting volcano.
So far no one seems to be too worried about naming or officially claiming ownership over the island, in part because there's a pretty good chance that it will wash away fairly soon. New volcanic islands are fairly common (and new barrier islands created by sediment building up in shallows near existing landmasses are even more common), but most are built of soft and loose enough material that they wash away in the erosion of sea waves within months. Of the ten that have stuck around for any substantial time since 1963 (the last year we got a really solid baby islet: Iceland's Surtsey), most of them will still likely wash away within a few years.
Scientists are especially dubious of this new island because it's not the first to pop up in the area. 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.
"It will be very loose and unconsolidated material," Dr. Matt Watson, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol, recently told the BBC, predicting the island's erosion. "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."
Despite the opinion of volcanologists like Watson with their fancy degrees, Orbassano has high hopes that the island will stick around, given how solid it felt under his feet, and that he might be able to turn it into an environmental tourism destination, which raises the question of how this island would be named and claimed if it did stick around.
In this case, it's clear that Tonga could claim the new island and no one would have any grounds to contest them. Under UN conventions, nations can claim everything within 12 miles of their coastline as territorial waters, and archipelago nations like Tonga (made up of over 170 islands) can claim everything between their islands as their territory, drawing the 12 mile border around the islands on the edges of their chain to keep from having patchworks of international waters within their nation.
If the island winds up building up further and joining one of the existing islands, it will take the previous island's name. That happened to Japan's Nijima island, which in 2014 connected to Nishino Shima and lost its own name—hence the general reluctance by governments to name and claim new islands until they know more about the shapes they'll take on and their permanence. But if an island sticks and remains separate from existing landmasses, then every country has its own naming laws. In Tonga, the rights will go to King Tupou VI, the nation's constitutional monarch.
Even if an island were further out, there would be grounds for a nation to claim new land within 200 miles of their coast under the UN-established Law of the Sea. This convention holds that all shipping and resources within said radius of sovereign territory belongs to the ruling state, which can be used to argue that volcanic resources creating new land belong to the nation with Law of the Sea rights to that region, further extending the reach of their naval economic zone.
But for lands that lie beyond the area set out in these roughly accepted conventions, things get a little more Mad Max-y. Basically, claiming virgin lands is a process of calling base and muscling everyone else out. 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.
A case of this capability-as-claim process actually cropped up over an island beyond Tonga's claimed waters in 1971. That year, a Nevada real estate mogul named Michael Oliver created the Ocean Life Research Foundation and seeded it with $100 million with the intention of claiming a few reefs 250 miles off of Tonga, taking in sand by barges, building up the existing above-water surface area, and using these platforms to create the anti-tax, anti-welfare, Libertarian utopia micronation to be known as the Republic of Minerva. Once he started building up the reefs, he tried to follow international protocol and declared his territorial claim and effective presence to the world, including Tonga, and started printing his own currency. In return, Tonga, a little miffed that this random American was claiming land so close to them, declared that the island was theirs and dispatched a small naval detachment to show their superior force, wresting the island away from Oliver. In subsequent years, the Tongan navy continued to push out anyone who tried to take the islands, until Oliver's sand buildup was washed away by the Pacific's waves.
Of course, it's not always that simple. Look at the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea, a region of islets and coasts so dense that Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have some decent claim to these hunks of rock and their fishing, mineral, and oil resources. Over the last couple of years, China has actually tried to build its own new, man-made islands, each with a harbor and airstrip to demonstrate the nation's claim and control, to extend their coastal territory and lay de facto claim to what they call the Nansha Islands. But with so many overlapping claims and no one willing to start a war to settle who has the greater force in the region, not even these new islands have done much to bolster China's territorial assertions.
By now, most of the world's permanent islands are firmly claimed, meaning that the bulk of new ones, forming in geological hotspots, wind up within accepted territorial marine borders. At worst, they could pop up in the resourceless middle of nowhere, leading to low-key negotiations. But god forbid a new island should somehow form in a highly contested and resource rich region like the Spratly chain. If it does, it would likely create a real shit show of colonial-era-style saber rattling and chest puffing to claim it and bolster a larger land grab.
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