Earth Under Water: Are Floating Cities the Answer?

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Back in the mid-1990s, a post-apocalyptic sci fi movie called Waterworld, envisioned a dystopia in which the polar ice caps had completely melted and most of the Earth’s land was thousands of feet under water. A mutant drifter, the Mariner (portrayed by Kevin Costner) roamed the oceans in a boat, looking for a mythical place called Dryland, which turned out to be the tip of Mount Everest. Waterworld was a box-office flop, perhaps because audiences found it hard to believe the premise. In fact, if all the ice on Earth–including ice sheets on land–melted, sea levels actually would rise about 230 feet, according to the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, an organization that has been tracking sea level data since the 1930s.

Thus, if Waterworld had been real, Costner’s character would have been looking for someplace more accessible–say, Philadelphia, where the highest elevation, 441 feet above present sea level, would still be perfectly dry. But I digress. Given the increasingly rapid pace of climate change, sea levels are indeed rising, as this graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows. And for the estimated 40 percent of the world’s population that lives along coastlines, that is bad news.  A 2007 report by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development sketches a disturbing vision, in which flooding and storms may endanger  nearly 150 million people in coastal cities worldwide, and potentially cause trillions of dollars in economic losses. 

What’s the answer? We could erect seawalls and reshape coastal land to raise the elevation, but doing that on the scale necessary would be enormously expensive, and still might not do the trick, since such manmade alterations would be vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather. 

That’s why some have advocated simply going with the flow, and building floating offshore cities. Like a lot of other massive proposals for staving off future apocalypses, this is not a new idea. Back in the late 1920s, a Delaware company proposed building floating airports in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea, to enable passenger jets to refuel during long trips. In the 1960s, philospher-visionary Buckminster Fuller, created this model of Triton City, a floating modular village-inside-a-building for 5,000 lucky inhabitants. Like many of Fuller’s other ideas–he also wanted to put a clear dome over New York City–the aquatic community never came to fruition.

In the 1990s visionary architect Wolf Hibertz, came up with Autopia Amperea self-assembling floating city that actually would build its own land over time, by using electrochemical reactions to draw minerals from seawater and create calcium carbonate (limestone). Here’s a 1997Popular Science article about his construction of small-scale reefs off Jamaica to test the concept.

More recently, in 2008, architect Vincent Callebaut created this design for Lilypad, which he describes as “a floating ecopolis for climate refugees,” modeled after the familiar aquatic plants from the family Nymphaeaceae. The commutity, which would consist of buildings surrounding a central lagoon would float, partially below water and partially above it. The structure’s outer skin would be a double layer of polyester fibers and titanium oxide, which would allow it to absorb both utraviolet radiation and atmospheric pollutants. Unlike cities on land, Lilypad would be totally energy self-sufficient, generating all the power it needed by harnessing wind, tidal power, and sunlight. Additionally, Lilypad would cultivate its own food through hyrdroponic agriculture.  

Will such floating communities ever be built? Perhaps, if we become desperate enough. 

Watch Earth Under Water tonight (Thursday, June 16) at 10 p.m.


  1. BuddyDennis
    June 19, 2011, 1:05 am

    The sky is falling, the sky is falling. I just read recently that we are soon headed for global cooling in the next several years if not decades. Should the earth start cooling, I would think that that would throw a monkey wrench into what they were talking about on this show. I have learned not to just believe everything the supposed "experts" try to get you to believe is absolute truth.

  2. TommyFriend
    December 20, 2012, 1:40 am

    Hi Buddy-D, You just read the Earth is cooling, and believe that, but don’t believe what “experts” say. That’s kind of funny, right? So who do you believe? The “other” experts? The ones that don’t pay any attention to ice caps melting? The “experts” fake photographic evidence collected for decades?