Dutch engineers test floating islands with hopes to house communities threatened by rising seas

As sea levels around the world continue to rise, countries continue to explore new and innovative techniques to protect infrastructure and coastal communities.

In the Netherlands, a team of engineers is currently exploring the possibility of what life might be like if people lived and worked at sea.

Researchers from Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (Marin) recently tested out a floating ‘mega island’ which is made of 87 large floating triangles and can reach as large as 5 km (3 miles). The island was put through a simulation where it withstood waves with a height of 50 feet (15 meters).

The floating islands could be a future housing solution in locations such as the Netherlands and parts of the southeastern United States coast, which are at risk from rising seas.

“As sea level rises, cities become overcrowded and more activities are carried out at sea, raising the dikes and reclaiming land from the seas are perhaps no longer an effective solution," said Olaf Waals, project manager and the concept developer for Marin. “An innovative alternative that fits with the Dutch maritime tradition is floating ports and cities.”

A recent study from University of Florida researchers said that sea-level rise is accelerating in parts of the southeastern U.S.

The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, said sea levels rose dramatically between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Miami from 2011 to 2015, and during that time, the rise was six times more than the global average sea rise attributed to climate change.

The reason for the accelerated rise, or "hot spot," is being attributed to a "one-two punch from naturally occurring climate variations," specifically El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation.

In a statement, Arnoldo Valle-Levinson, lead author of the study and professor of civil and coastal engineering sciences, described the future for some southeastern U.S. cities as “Venice-like.”

“We need to understand that the ocean is coming,” Valle-Levinson said.

In a recent interview with Nola.com, Waals said cities such as New Orleans may need space where they could develop or put homes as sea levels rise.

Waals said their first test was to see how the 26-foot-wide model behaves in wind, waves and currents, and it "did well because the island flexes with the waves."

"The first row of triangles bend with the waves but also reflect the energy of the waves," Waals said. "It would be feasible to actually absorb a lot of the wave energy."

Testing was conducted in Marin's offshore model basin, a large pool where ocean waves, winds and currents can be simulated.

The project has been underway for about a year, and in that time, the research team developed the triangular shaped islands and planned how they wanted to connect them, Erik-Jan De Ridder a senior project manager for Marin told AccuWeather in an email.

Possible uses include providing working space for cultivating food, such as fish; loading and transporting cargo in areas where there is little infrastructure; and storing, generating and maintaining sustainable energy, like solar power.

Some of the benefits of the islands include the ability to be easily extended by connecting additional islands, as well as easily remove islands.

Drawbacks include potential ecological problems like how the islands could block sunlight from reaching aquatic plants. There will also be considerable economical and technical challenges as well as government regulations to overcome before these islands could become a reality, according to De Ridder.

Many questions remain including how strong the islands need to be to withstand winds and currents, how traffic and transportation would be organized and what effect the motion of the island could have on the people who would live and work there.

Marin will next look to conduct testing in intermediate-sized bodies of water where there is some type of shelter, like a bay. Eventually, the group will aim to move large structures offshore.

De Ridder said it's difficult to say how soon it will be before housing is possible since they are in the early stages of development, but in 10 years it might be possible to have several houses in a sheltered area.

“People will have to get used to the idea that you can live on a floating island,” De Ridder said.