By John Roach
AccuWeather staff writer
The United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN Habitat) recently announced its support for the idea of a self-sustaining floating city. Oceanix, the company behind the project known as Oceanix City, is convinced the ocean-based city would be a viable solution to the housing shortage problem and the concern over rising sea levels.
The proposed city would be home to roughly 10,000 people divided into groups of six villages that each would have six platforms holding about 300 people. The platforms would be anchored by Biorock, a material created by exposing underwater minerals to electrical currents.
The floating city also would be designed to withstand severe weather conditions, including floods, tsunamis and Category 5 hurricanes, according to the company.
AccuWeather spoke to Oceanix founder and CEO Marc Collins Chen to learn how planning for severe weather factors into his company’s plans. Below is an edited version of his one-on-one interview with AccuWeather.
AccuWeather: How have you tested whether a floating city could withstand such extreme weather?
Marc Collins Chen: Our approach is that it would be irresponsible to build any sort of new infrastructure without taking into account the new [weather] data that we have. Extreme weather is here; depending on whose data you read, either the storms are getting stronger or more frequent, one or the other. But we need to take it into consideration for the building code of these new infrastructures.
Our thinking around extreme weather is it’s here, it’s happening and it can’t just be business as usual. Think back about the house that survived [Hurricane Michael] in Mexico Beach. It was more expensive [to build], but if you think about it, if all of the houses there had been built to that [type of] code, how would it have been different?
Here’s how I see it in terms of survivability. If you look at the Saffir-Simpson [hurricane] wind scale, at Category 5, you’re very clearly facing catastrophic damage. But here’s the secondary issue: the power outages can literally last, well, look at Puerto Rico, that was 11 months. Why? Because power lines are outdoors, trees fall on them and you know what happens next. The other catastrophic thing after these weather events is obviously standing water. Think about Mozambique and what’s going to happen now. There are health hazards.
So you take all of that into account – and we’re working with the experts at the MIT Center for Ocean Engineering – and you ask, how are these floating cities going to fare in this sort of event? We’re looking at two things.
We’re looking obviously at saving lives and making sure there are shelters on these floating cities where people are completely safe from the wind…. What’s important is the safety and security of everybody onboard and I believe we have some thinking and solutions that we can at least make sure everybody is safe.
But then the day after, what’s really important is all of your systems. So that means you need your freshwater [systems] to be up and running, your electrical grid to still be up and your sewage treatment [working]– the last thing you want is for everybody to have a sewage problem.
So we’re approaching this from a design perspective… And that’s what our partnership with the United Nations is about – what are the best practices and what can we learn, and how do we future weatherproof these floating cities? That’s our objective.
This is science, so it works by iteration. You have to do the first one, try it out – now all of this gets tested first in 3D computer models, and in wind tunnels and in wave pools before it gets put out there. That’s our thinking.
AW: When preparing for catastrophes, you could use the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster as an example of a worst-case scenario on top of a worst-case scenario. Can you handle a Category 5 hurricane followed by a tidal wave as happened there? Are you planning for those type of events followed by another catastrophe?
MCC: They are. So again, I’m really happy about this partnership with MIT… I’ll tell you where our project is limiting; it does limit as to where these future floating cities will be positioned. We’re thinking about being close to major coastal megacities because, according to the UN, by 2050, nine out of 10 megacities will be coastal cities. A megacity is 10 million-plus. Those are the cities that today have the greatest need for affordable housing. Huge, huge demand for affordable housing. We’re going to [have a world population of] 9.7 billion in 2050.
Every mayor in every coastal city has someone who’s responsible for figuring out what to do in case of weather, in case of flooding, in case of sea level rises. Every city is thinking: What do I build next? Do I retreat? Do I just basically stop giving building permits for anything in the flood zone? Cities have responded by allowing land reclamation, which is really bad for the environment when you dump sand into the ocean and hope it holds. It makes things worse…
Where I’m from in French Polynesia, we have the understanding that nature will always beat us. So you work with it and not against it. You don’t try to build a wall to protect yourself from the ocean because it’s not going to work.
So it’s more about what does this future world look like? Extreme weather for me is not only the hurricanes and the sea level rise, but it is also flooding. There was a flood in 1931 in China where up to 4 million people died. There was disease and the lack of access to food and all of that …
I’m actually really eager to see in the next few years the development of sustainable floating cities, which means sustainable from energy, food, water, zero waste and all of this. But beyond just that, to see how these are going to fare in the face of this new weather. That’s critical and it’s central to everything we’re designing.