MIT researchers figured out how to build 'pop-up islands' that could save places like Hawaii from disappearing underwater

Shutterstock/Siraphob WerakijpanichA bird’s eye view of the Maldives.
  • Researchers at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab have discovered a way to build “pop-up islands” by harnessing a wave’s energy.
  • The lab’s founder, Skylar Tibbits, recently debuted the technology at the TED conference in Vancouver, Canada.
  • Tibbits said the force of tsunamis and windstorms could eventually be used to build natural barriers that protect against sea-level rise.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The earth’s warming temperatures are already leading to catastrophic events like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and landslides. But there may be a way to channel these disasters to protect coastal communities.

A group of researchers at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab is exploring whether the strong ocean current caused by natural disasters could be harnessed to fight sea level rise.

Their first project uses the current to gather small sandbars – which could eventually become islands – in the Maldives, a group of low-lying islands that could soon find itself underwater due to rising sea levels.

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The process begins with installing underwater ramps, which the team describes as “low-cost, easy to deploy, and adaptable” to different climates. When a wave passes over the ramp with enough force, it brings sand particles along with it and drops them off below the ramp’s edge. Over time, the sediment begins to accumulate and eventually forms a sandbar that peers above the ocean’s surface.

Skylar Tibbits, the team’s founder and a TED Fellow, recently presented these findings at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, Canada.

A number of years ago, one of his thesis students suggested that mudslides and landslides could be used to build parks, and Tibbits has carried the idea with him ever since. “It has always been on my mind that maybe we could take these natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, windstorms, mudslides, landslides, fires – and build instead of destroy,” he said.

His work is supported by Invena, an organisation based out of the Maldives that looks for technological solutions to problems in island communities.

Skylar Tibbits/MIT Self-Assembly LabThe researchers tested their technology at MIT before deploying it in the Maldives.

In February 2019, the two organisations tested their first experiment in the Maldives, and will continue to monitor the growth of sand over the coming year.

Though the Self-Assembly Labs’ project relies on the ocean current to build sandbars, the force of tsunamis or windstorms could help accelerate the process. This would give coastal areas a way to rebuild in the wake of disaster – or create a natural barrier that might ultimately ward off rising seas. That’s especially good news for places like Hawaii, where Waikiki Beach could be underwater in the next 15 to 20 years.

The concept of a pop-up island created by wave energy is different than a floating city, which involves constructing artificial land masses, according to Tibbits. “We’re more interested in how things build themselves,” he said.

To turn a temporary sandbar into a permanent island, he said, communities would keep the underwater ramps, which mimic the topography of a coral reef and help anchor the sand. The installation of trees, shrubs, and other plants performs a similar function.

“There’s a joke that the only difference between a sandbar and an island is a palm tree,” Tibbits said. “The reason an island stays is because of vegetation.”

Tibbits said the model could be preferable to “static” infrastructure projects like the Blue Dunes proposal, which aims to protect the Mid-Atlantic coast from flooding and sea-level rise through the construction of artificial islands. That project would require dredging, or scooping up sand from the bottom of the ocean and depositing it somewhere else, which can be damaging to local ecosystems.

Tibbits said his concept is less invasive and expends less energy than traditional modes of land reclamation – but he still has to prove that the sandbars will form properly.

“This is going to be a very long-term project,” he said. “But if we can get this to work, I think it’s pretty powerful.”

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