Ephemeral islands and other states-in-waiting

[Image: Temporary islands emerge from the sea, via].

In the Mediterranean Sea southwest of Sicily, an island comes and goes. Called, alternately and among other names, depending on whose territorial interests are at stake, Graham Bank, Île Julia, the island of Ferdinandea, or, more extravagantly, a complex known as the Campi Flegrei del Mar di Sicilia (the Phlegraean Fields of the Sicily Sea), this geographic phenomenon is fueled by a range of submerged volcanoes. One peak, in particular, has been known to break the waves, forming a small, ephemeral island off the coast of Italy.

And, when it does, several nation-states are quick to claim it, including, in 1831, when the island appeared above water, “the navies of France, Britain, Spain, and Italy.” Unfortunately for them, it eroded away and disappeared beneath the waves in 1832.

It then promised to reappear, following new eruptions, in 2002 (but played coy, remaining 6 meters below the surface).

The island, though, always promises to show up again someday, potentially restarting old arguments of jurisdiction and sovereignty—is it French? Spanish? Italian? Maltese? perhaps a micronation?—so some groups are already well-prepared for its re-arrival. As Ted Nield explains in his book Supercontinent, “the two surviving relatives of Ferdinand II commissioned a plaque to be affixed to the then still submerged volcanic reef, claiming it for Italy should it ever rise again.” This is the impending geography of states-in-waiting, instant islands that, however temporarily, redraw the world’s maps.

The story of Ferdinandea, as recounted by that well-known primary historical source Wikipedia and seemingly ripe for inclusion in the excellent Borderlines blog by Frank Jacobs, is absolutely fascinating: it’s appeared on an ornamental coin, it was visited by Sir Walter Scott, it inspired a short story by James Fenimore Cooper, it was depth-charged by the U.S. military who mistook it for a Libyan submarine, and it remains the subject of active geographic speculation by professors of international relations. It is, in a sense, Europe’s Okinotori—and one can perhaps imagine some Borgesian wing of the Italian government hired to sit there in a boat, in open waters, for a whole generation, armed with the wizardry of surveying gear and a plumb bob dangling down into the sea, testing for seismic irregularities, as if casting a spell to coax this future extension of the Italian motherland up into the salty air.

5 thoughts on “Ephemeral islands and other states-in-waiting”

  1. An incident quite similar to this happened between the country I live (Bangladesh) and India regarding the South Talpotti Island which as of 2012 has disappeared under the sea(global warming?).

    The peculiar thing about that island was that the main channel shifted east and west, year to year, thus the claim also from Bangladesh to India . The island was politically sensitive due to the rumor that oil and gas might have existed underneath.

    Theres an ongoing maritime boundary dispute going on between the two countries under ITLOS/Tribunal, and the re-emergence of this island might shift the sea boundaries by thousands of miles!

  2. On the topic of territorial disputes, there is also an ongoing one between Phiippines and China regarding the Scarborough Shoal, a group of reefs and islands west of Subic Bay Philippines (although it's ephemerality is not that extreme as the example above, as it disappears and reappears with the ebbing of the tides.)

    This is a hot topic in my country right now (the Philippines) to the point that the congress promulgated a law to change the name of the sea surrounding it (from South China Sea to West Philippines Sea). (Some netizens even bring the dispute online, with Chinese hackers defacing Philippine website and posting territorial map with the shoal as part of China; and Filipino counterparts doing the same to Chinese sites now with maps that treats the shoal as Philippines territory.)

    It might be best if the disputed islands just disappear under the sea forever to avoid any argument. (Or maybe just let it disappear until a much better solution is at hand.)

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