Who Owns New Islands?

This video was made possible by CuriosityStream. When you sign up with the link in the description,
you’ll also get access to Nebula—the streaming video platform that HAI is a part of. Everybody loves islands—they’re like little
continents, or really big boats. Part of why islands are so great is that they
come in so many different flavors—hot, cold, green, white, love, British, used-to-be-British,
Chinese, maybe-Chinese-but-it-depends-who-you-ask, and even everyone’s favorite, isolated. In fact, isolated islands are so great that
maybe somebody should do a whole podcast about them, and maybe even make a documentary too. Actually, maybe somebody did, and maybe the
podcast is called, “Extremities,” and the documentary is called, “The World’s
Most Useful Airport,” and maybe it’s available on Nebula. I mean, I don’t know for sure, I’m just
saying maybe. The point is, islands are great, and one other
thing that makes them great is that, much like YouTube algorithms, every once in a while
we get a new one and then everyone has to figure out what they heck they’re going
to do about it. New islands can form in a number of different
ways. The most common method is volcanic activity—a
volcano that was underwater erupts, spews enough lava to peak out from the water’s
surface, the lava cools, and presto you’ve got a new island. But that’s not the only way—new islands
can also form because an earthquake pushed land above water, because an ice bridge that
once connected land to a continent melted, or because a bunch of misfit toys needed somewhere
to sing and dance about their problems. And so, the question is, when new islands
form, what happens? After all, every piece of land in the world
is pretty much accounted for—it’s either owned by someone, owned by multiple people
who disagree about who really owns it, or, like Antarctica, intentionally owned by nobody
because of a treaty where everyone agreed that no one would own it. So, when there’s suddenly a new piece of
land, the world faces a question that, in the modern day, rarely has to be asked: how
do we figure out who it belongs to? Is there a bidding war? A fight to the death? A raffle? Well, sometimes, the question of ownership
is handled quite easily because of some idiosyncrasy of the island’s location or formation. Take, for example, the island of Nishioshima
Shinto, which was formed by volcanic activity in 1973. Within a year, erosion caused it to merge
with a neighboring island that was owned by the Japanese, which meant that the Japanese
now also owned it, as it was no longer its own island, but instead, an extension of the
Japanese island. There’s also the interesting case of Uunartoq
Qeqertaq, an Arctic island created because the glacial ice that had connected it to the
main part of Greenland melted. Who knows why it melted—could have something
to do with the greenhouse emissions that the entire scientific community says are overheating
the planet and will one day kill us all, but I mean, it also could have been something
else, like maybe someone left a space heater on for too long. After all, what have scientists got, other
than doctorates and rigorously tested data? Anyways, when that ice bridge melted and separated
Uunartoq Qeqertaq from the mainland, it was pretty widely accepted that Greenland owned
the island, because they had owned that same land before—and after all, I can’t think
of any nation who would take land away from the people who historically owned it; well,
except for the US, UK, France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan,
Belgium, and many, many others. But what happens when a new island forms that
wasn’t already part of a country’s mainland, and it doesn’t do something like merge with
an existing island? What about an island that just pops up in
the ocean, all by itself? The answer is that it’s complicated because
there isn’t really a formal process by which new islands are assigned ownership. There’s no UN Committee on New Island Affairs,
no International Board of Recent Isle Issues, not even so much as a Worldwide Club on Fresh
Land Concerns. So, absent any laws or international bodies
to govern the situation, ownership of new islands is done in a sort of strange, pre-law,
wild-west kind of way. When a new island shows up, somebody just
claims that they own it, and if they get enough people and countries to believe them, then
they become right. An interesting example of this playing out
in the real world is the island of Surtsey, first formed in 1963 by volcanic activity,
about 20 miles or 32 kilometers off the coast of Iceland. Of course, Iceland was the logical nation
to claim it, and so when word of the Surtsey’s formation reached them, they sent a crew to
go plant the Icelandic flag, but the problem was, someone beat them to it: a French journalist
named Gerard Gray, who took the liberty of planting his own flag. Not the French flag, mind you, but the flag
of his magazine, the Paris-Match. It may seem weird that a French magazine would
have its own flag in the first place, but then again, this is the place where they eat
snails. They’ve got a lot of weird stuff going on. Anyways, even though Gerard Gray was the first
person to claim Surtsey, he was just a man, and Iceland was a country, and as everyone
knows, rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, and country beats man—especially
in Hong Kong. So, Iceland just kept saying they owned Surtsey,
even passing legislation declaring it a wildlife preserve, and after a while, the international
community just sort of accepted that the island belonged to Iceland, and so… it did. At the same time, if Tanzania happened to
get to the island first and claim it, hypothetically, it would have become their territory. Iceland and the international community certainly
might have something to say about it, but they would have quite the legitimate claim. If you’re interested in learning more about
islands, who owns them, and what life on them is like, then have I got the perfect thing
for you: “The World’s Most Useful Airport” is a documentary that we made about the remote
island of St Helena, and the airport they built in a last-ditch effort to safe their
economy and connect themselves to the outside world. It’s a fascinating story, and of course
flying myself and a crew out there was not cheap, but it was something we were able to
afford to do because of the support of CuriosityStream. They’ve partnered with Nebula, the streaming
platform built by myself and other independent educational YouTubers, to offer an incredible
deal: a subscription to CuriositySteam, which only costs $20 for the whole year, now comes
with a subscription to Nebula too. If you sign up at curiositystream.com/hai,
you can not only watch my documentary, streaming now on Nebula, but you can also watch any
one of the thousands of top-quality documentaries on CuriosityStream. Alright, now get out of here and go watch
my damn documentary.


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