Monday, April 25, 2011

New Islands Discovered!

Gurupi Islands -- Google image from

The title above is attention-grabbing and a little inaccurate ... on purpose. A lot of information about the world gets presented to us in ways that are meant to grab attention, and it is good to develop the habit of comparing headlines and introductions to more detailed information, in order to determine what the real stories are.

In this case, the real story -- as reported on Live ScienceCoastal Care, and many other sources -- is that a list of one type of island has been dramatically revised as a result of both improved technology and changes in outlook. Specifically, a list of the 1,492 barrier islands throughout the world was compiled in 2001, based on the satellite image data available at the time, and on what kinds of settings scientists believe it possible to find them. A more recent study used higher-resolution satellites, locally navigation and topographic maps, and a different way of thinking about the islands. The result: the list now has 2,149 islands, but the list and the thinking behind it are new ... not the islands themselves.

The finding is important because barrier islands are both very important and very vulnerable. Thousands of miles of islands protect coastlines throughout the world from storms, which are becoming a greater threat as sea levels rise. The islands, however, are dynamic systems that depend upon fresh inputs of sand that are easily disrupted by construction, land use, and -- ironically -- structures meant to protect coastal properties.

Most humans live near coastlines, and those who can afford to will often try to live as close as possible, making the real estate markets on barrier islands among the most competitive on the planet. The attraction is hard to resist: part of my honeymoon was spent on Ocean City, Maryland -- a mere sliver of sand protecting Maryland from Atlantic storms!

Paul Smith photography

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