The Isle of Wight

Dear Evil Engineer: How can I tip the Isle of Wight into the English Channel?

Image credit: Dreamstime

This month, a small island nation considers extreme measures to get the UK’s attention. As reported by Hilary Lamb.

Dear Evil Engineer,

I am President of a small island nation being gradually swallowed by rising sea levels. Last year, my presidential palace fell into the sea, forcing me to relocate to a less fashionable atoll. This is our home, but we are forced to question how much longer we can live in a country which is vanishing into the ocean.

I’m trying to secure funding to build a sea wall around our capital and to begin a programme of land reclamation. However, capital doesn’t come cheap for us, and every time I’ve called to enquire about accessing some of the $100bn in climate finance promised by developed nations annually, I am told my call is very important but under these unprecedented circumstances, the line is receiving very high traffic and I must be prepared for a considerable wait time; I’ve never heard the end of the hold music after that. Using the chat bot went as well as expected. I am yet to secure the funding my country needs.

I’m fed up of this and need to get the attention of the nations which put us in this rotten position in the first place. I propose sinking the Isle of Wight into the English Channel, to see how the British like being the ones underwater. Could you advise me how to proceed?

A somewhat damp villain

Dear villain,

At last, a villain who is the hero of their own story! This feels more 2020s than all those megalomaniac villains seeking assistance with their needlessly destructive vanity projects. Unfortunately, you have picked a tricky target.

Islands disappearing into the sea are not uncommon. After the ~10,000BC ice age, rising sea levels consumed many landmasses, including that which once connected Great Britain to continental Europe. Of course, rising sea levels are now an existential threat for island nations like yours. The Solomon Islands and Micronesia are among the nations to have lost islands over the past few decades.

Rising sea levels are not the only threat to islands, however; they can also be disappeared slowly by subsidence and coastal erosion (or more quickly, when combined with rising sea levels). For instance, hundreds of islands in Chesapeake Bay, US, have been lost to subsidence, erosion and rising sea levels since being colonised in the 1600s, including some that were once settled.

Isle of Wight

Image credit: Dreamstime

Other natural forces can bring about more dramatic, Atlantean destruction. Jordsand in the Wadden Sea was worn away by a succession of storm tides. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa destroyed almost the entire island and, as recently as 2019, a volcano swallowed up the entire island of Lateiki, Tonga. Certain types of geology, too, can be prone to sudden destruction. Flowing groundwater can dissolve carbonate materials such as limestone and sandstone, causing ground rich in these materials to collapse dramatically, swallowing everything above them in a sinkhole. Also, earthquakes can bring about ‘liquefaction’ in loosely packed, sandy soil, causing the ground to act like a liquid and whole buildings to sink into it.

Broadly speaking, these are the natural means by which islands can ‘sink’. Are any relevant to the Isle of Wight? Well, it certainly is affected by rising sea levels – with the Eastern Yar area, Hampstead and Yarmouth among its areas in greatest danger – though it is not low-lying enough to be in existential danger in the coming decades. The island is also affected by coastal erosion, but, again, too slowly for it to be an existential threat. Meanwhile, its geology does not make it prone to sinkholes, and it is not in a seismically or volcanically active region, so very unlikely to experience liquefaction or destruction by volcano. (Sitting comfortably on the Eurasian plate also rules out any Lex Luthor-inspired schemes to tip it into the ocean by bombing a plate boundary.)

This means that we must rely on artificial means to sink the Isle of Wight into the English Channel. The problem is that any human activity to transform a landmass must be performed at a vast scale. For instance, Ruhr Valley in the west of Germany was a mining hotspot from the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The incredible volume of earth moved from beneath the ground for decades for the extraction of anthracite has caused the region to ‘sink’ by as much as 20m in places. Extracting this much land from the Isle of Wight and causing it to sink is technically feasible but would take such a long time that by the time you finish, much of the island might be underwater already due to rising sea levels – and your own small island nation will be a distant memory.

The one way of destroying the Isle of Wight within a sensible timeframe is to use nuclear weapons. In 1954, the US government deployed the ‘Bravo’ hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in its largest ever nuclear test, leaving a crater with a 1.8km diameter and outright vapouring three islands (Bokonijien, Aerokojlol and Namu). A large enough blast could, in theory, destroy the Isle of Wight. However, given the respective sizes of the Bravo crater (~2.5km2) and the Isle of Wight (380km2) you would need the equivalent of around 150 Bravos to destroy it. It may not strictly be ‘sinking’ the island, but it’d certainly get the attention of the British government.

In conclusion, then, there is no way to tip the Isle of Wight into the sea. The best you can hope for is to turn it into a giant crater using what I’m sure is your plentiful national arsenal of nuclear weapons. Perhaps set your sights elsewhere – Chesapeake Bay, for instance, has plenty of small islands already being swallowed by erosion and rising sea levels, making them much easier (though lower profile) targets.


The Evil Engineer

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