08 outubro 2021

The time of the unknown islands

By Soraya Fonteneles de Menezes
MSc and Ph.D. Student in Maritime Studies at Brazilian Naval War College (PPGEM/EGN). Researcher at Simulations and Scenarios Laboratory (LSC/EGN) and Maritime Policies Observatory. Editor for BILOS´ columnists.


                                                                                            Can you tell me why you want the boat, To go in search of                                                                                        the unknown island, There are no unknown islands left, That                                                                                     is just what the king said to me, What he knows about islands he                                                                                     has learned from me. He learned everything he knows about                                                                                        islands from me, It is odd that you, a man of the sea, should say                                                                                to me that there are no unknown islands left, I am a man of the    land and yet I know that even known islands remain unknown until
we set foot on them.[1]


Extreme places on Earth have always fascinated Mankind. The polar regions, due to their remote geography and austere temperatures, were almost held intact away from human presence until recently. Antarctica for example was sighted since ancient times by navigators during storm times, in a way that there was a suspicion about its nature. Only between 1830 and 1840 expeditions financed by Europeans sought to discover whether the region would just be an island!

The beginning of the 19th century would be known as the apogee of the “Great Expeditions to the South Pole”, when Amundsen landed in the region with success in 1911. Robert F. Scott and Ernest H. Schakleton (both British) also played their prominent roles as it is widely documented in the literature[2] about the period.

In July of this year, Danish scientists “by chance” happened to find an (until then) unknown island, further north than Oodaaq, – both located in extreme north of Greenland’s territory[3]. At the time of this discovery, the Arctic is already under a lot of pressure, considering the lasting wildfires in areas such as Alaska[4] and Siberia[5], threatening wildlife in the regions. At the same time, the melting of the ice surface area, allowing for a permanent shipping passage called “The Arctic Route”, combined with the possibility of exploitation of energetic resources from the region, raise up the geopolitical tensions between bordering States.

The Montego Bay Convention dedicated only article 121 to the regime of islands. To sum up, it they are described as a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide. We shall not forget that an island’s existence ensures the State not only a territorial sea and a contiguous zone, but also provides for the right to claim an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf. Therefore, a distant island lost in the ocean may increase economic and strategic leverage.

At the opposite end, we find the situation of the insular states directly affected by sea-level rise, which is already a concrete reality, making victims in some areas of the globe, such as Small Island  Pacific States[6]. The changes impact directly the life and the livelihood of the islands’ populations, that in some cases end up entering into a challenging category for international law: that of environmental migrants.

On 22 September, 2021, the Alliance of Small Islands States[7] concluded during a virtual meeting its “2021 Leader’s Declaration”[8]. In addition to highlighting the urgent need to mitigate Climate Change impacts and reinforce the commitment to Sustainable Development, the Declaration dedicates one of its topics to the “Oceans”. In it, we can see clearly the States clarify their concerns in maintaining the current maritime boundaries, as read below:

                                         Affirm that there is no obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the                                           Sea to keep baselines and outer limits of maritime zones under review nor to update charts                                        or lists of geographical coordinates once deposited with the Secretary-General of the United                                      Nations, and that such maritime zones and the rights and entitlements that flow from them                                shall continue to apply without reduction, notwithstanding any physical changes connected to climate change-related sea-level rise[9];

When the main character of the Jose Saramago’s book approaches the King asking for a boat so that he could search for his unknown island, his demand is at first rejected, under the allegation that all islands were already on the maps and therefore belonged to the kingdom.  Analysing the subject under the lenses of modern times, it states clearly the necessity of resuming the main points about what is indeed an island, considering first the political, economic and social impacts regarding this matter and second the political asymmetry of power among the involved parties.

Beyond the possibilities brought by the new “known” islands, today’s map of the ocean may change drastically in our lifetimes if juridical criteria are not debated and established on the matter. Thereby, we can say that sea-level rise and the regime of islands will both stay as strong issues within the Law of the Sea throughout this century.



[1] SARAMAGO, José. The Tale of the Unknown Island. Available at:

[2] For example: Endurance: Shackleton´s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing), Scott And Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth (Roland Huntford)

[3] BBC. Greenland island is worlds’s northernmost island. Available at:

[4] BORUNDA, Alejandra. National Geographic. Environment.  ‘Zombie’ fires in the Arctic are linked to climate chage. Available at:

[5] Witze, Alexandra. Nature. The Arctic is burning like never before – and that´s bad News for climate change. Available:

[6] Considered: Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Marshall Islands Republic,, Palau, Papua Nova Guiné, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu e Vanuatu – according Project Pacific Climite Change and Migration (PCCM).

[7] Composed by 39 Estados Membros. More Information Available at:

[8] ALLIANCE OF SMALL ISLAND STATES. Leader’ Declaration. 2021. Available at:

[9] Idem (41)

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