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  Columnist: William B Stoecker

Image credit: Malene Thyssen

Cities on the sea

Posted on Tuesday, 16 July, 2013 | 2 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker

Some years ago I visited Bolivia and travelled on Lake Titicaca, first by hydrofoil and then in a canoe made of bundled totora reeds and paddled by a grinning, buck-toothed Indian. We landed on a man-made floating island, also composed of totora reeds. It was inhabited by Unos Indians, most of whom now speak Aymara and Spanish; in the past they lived on these floating islands as security against attack by other tribes; now they do it partly to attract tourists and partly as an experiment. In southern Iraq, the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs live in houses with arched roofs of reed thatch, partly on dry land and partly on artificial islands of woven reeds, raising buffalo, sheep, and cattle, growing pearl millet, rice, wheat, and barley, and fishing and selling reed mats. As might be expected, there are problems with sanitation and obtaining pure drinking water, and the Ma’dan suffer from malaria and numerous other diseases. Yet the idea of floating islands holds a certain fascination.

Many of us have fantasized at one time or another about escaping tyranny, economic problems, and government corruption by founding or at least joining an entirely new nation, a small city state perhaps. There being an acute shortage of unclaimed real estate, our fantasies run to floating islands far out at sea. But is this really feasible? After all, it is one thing to build and maintain a floating island in a lake or marsh, and quite another to do it on the sea, which, with its storms and waves, is a very rough neighborhood indeed. And obviously expense would be an issue, and it is doubtful that the global elites, intent on a one world tyranny, would allow such a challenge to their power.

In addition to the Unos and the Ma’dan, there is a community of boat people in Hong Kong’s harbor, and people live on moored houseboats all over the world. Some wealthy people live permanently on their yachts; some ship captains used to bring their wives and children on board and live continually at sea; and some well to do people live permanently on cruise ships. In addition, there is a ship called the World, owned by wealthy individuals who have purchased suites rather like condominiums, but it is little more than a cruise ship, not in any way self-sustaining. A group of visionaries have proposed a gigantic “Freedom Ship,” 4,320 feet long, 725 feet wide, and 340 feet high with 50,000 wealthy passengers and 15,000 crew living permanently aboard it. But, again, this is just an enlarged cruise ship.

Yet the idea of truly gigantic floating islands has been around for some years. During WWII British inventor Geoffrey Pyke proposed, as a base for aircraft to attack Hitler’s U boats in the mid-Atlantic, an island made of wood chips and water frozen into ice, kept solid in the summer by refrigeration units. Ice is lighter than liquid water, and, with its interior spaces, the island could have floated quite well. The mixture of ice and wood chips was tested, and it was very strong and hard and resisted melting better than ice alone. But it would have been a colossal expense, and the mid-Atlantic gap in submarine defenses was closed by aircraft carriers, making the island unnecessary. More recently, the Seasteading Institute has proposed self-sustaining floating islands, some with a modular design enabling them to be enlarged over time. And who can forget the bizarre floating island in the film Waterworld?

A truly independent floating city state would have to be self-sustaining, with industry, agriculture, and fishing, and it would have to be financed by its original colonists. This could only be accomplished if one or more of them was extremely wealthy. In addition, they would have to more or less “fly under the radar” of the global elite to avoid being prosecuted for nonexistent crimes, such as non-payment of taxes to one nation or another. If the elites succeed in establishing their one world dictatorship, a floating city state would certainly be attacked, but if the entire global economic and social system simply collapses (as seems increasingly likely), the floating island might well survive and prosper.

Ships need constant maintenance at sea and must be periodically dry docked or at least brought to safe harbors for more extensive repairs; this would not be feasible for an immense floating island, so it would have to be made of corrosion-resistant aluminum alloys and composites, and made as fireproof as possible. It would have to be large and strong enough to resist even the 130 foot mega waves that are known to occur at times, and wide enough to avoid capsizing. Ideally, it would have some kind of propulsion and be capable at least of low speed movement to escape major storms and to avoid being carried away from a desired area by ocean currents. The inhabitants might choose to move with the seasons, moving to the tropics in winter and into cooler regions in summer. For these reasons, the colony might be essentially a huge ship, perhaps a catamaran or trimaran design to avoid the risk of capsizing while still being sleek enough to move through the water. However, it would be difficult to make such a design modular and simply add new sections to enlarge it.

If any major nation chose to attack the colony, there would be little hope of effective defense against such odds. Following the likely collapse of civilization that threat might no longer exist but piracy would likely increase, and the colonists would have to arm themselves and train to repel attacks. They would need some anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and radar guided gun systems, as well as automatic weapons and small arms to fight any enemies who succeeded in boarding the island. Helicopters could be launched, and, if the island was large enough, fixed winged aircraft. The colonists might be required to undergo military training, and a small cadre of active duty military personnel could lead a large force of reservists.

Current energy technologies would barely suffice to power a floating island; flammable fuel stored on board is always a deadly hazard, and the only feasible source of fuel would have to be obtained by deep sea drilling (which would make the entire colony a drilling platform, with all the risks that entails) or, possibly, harvesting methane hydrate, methane trapped in ice crystals on the cold ocean floor under deep pressure. This energy source is abundant, and, theoretically, could be collected with long pipes or hoses, but this has not been proven to be safe or practical. Nuclear fission might be an option, but, eventually, the uranium would run out. Wind and solar power are expensive and unpredictable. If the colony was anchored to the sea floor with long cables in an area like the Gulf Stream, underwater turbines might be powered by the current. Another option, especially in the tropics, is sea thermal power. The air and the surface waters can be quite warm, but a few thousand feet down the water is bitterly cold. The cold water can by pumped up almost to the surface (remember, its weight would not be a problem unless it was raised above the surface). A refrigerant with a low boiling point can be converted to a gas by heat from the sun and the warm surface water, spin a turbine, and then be cooled and condensed by the cold water from the deeps. But if more exotic energy sources, like cold fusion or some of the even stranger “free” energy technologies certain inventors claim to have developed could be made to work, the colony might really prosper and be truly independent.

The colony would have to produce its own food and fresh water. Rainwater could be collected and stored, and seawater could be desalinated; the technology for this has been greatly improved in recent years. Gray water (used for washing) could irrigate small garden plots on board, and a new technology called hydrothermal depolymerization could render even sewage sterile and safe. Intensive farming techniques could produce a large amount of food in a small area. And of course the colonists could fish, launching smaller fishing boats from the island, and perhaps moving the island to be in or near rich fisheries much of the time. Fish and oyster farming is another option.

Spare parts and various materials could be stored on board the island at the time of its construction, and many materials, especially metals and glass, could be recycled. Magnesium and other materials can be produced economically from the various salts dissolved in seawater, and many parts of the deep ocean floor are littered with nodules rich in manganese and other metals. Also on the ocean floor, especially around spreading zones, are “black smokers,” towers of minerals deposited by water heated by magma below the floor. These deposits are rich in copper, lead, and other minerals, and likely also in gold and silver. The active hydrothermal vents harbor colonies of bacteria, tube worms, and crabs, but there would be no need to damage these; there are plenty of inactive smokers that might be mined with the appropriate technology without harming the ecosystem. All these raw materials and the goods manufactured from them could be used by the colonists, or traded with land-based nations for other materials.

As to the form of government, this would be a decision of the original colonists. Likely most colonists would opt for a free republic with a written constitution limiting the powers of the government. In a small city state many of the problems present in more populous nations could be avoided, such as the high cost of campaigning which leads to so many abuses. With a small population, vote fraud would be easier to prevent. The monetary system could be based on precious metals, avoiding the fiat money that has undermined the world economy, and, ultimately, our freedom.

Will such a colony ever be built? Will such a republic ever exist? Given the expense, probably not. But we can dream.

Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.

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