Regular readers of Environmental Graffiti will know there are such things as killer lakes, but who would have thought that there are killer islands as well? Yes, we have them here on earth, and it isn’t simple hyperbole. Islands exist that have been blighted by anthrax spores, have had nuclear waste dumped on their shores, and that spew sulfuric gas into the atmosphere. Most of these “deadliness factors” are thanks to man not thinking about the consequences of his actions. Pack your bags – and your radiation suits – as we visit the seven deadliest islands on earth.
Image: Pere Ubu
7. Gruinard Island
In the Second World War, the British government decided to test anthrax as a bioweapon and compulsorily purchased Gruinard Island from its owners for use as a testing site. The island, part of Scotland, remained contaminated with anthrax for decades – at least until 1986, when 280 tonnes of formaldehyde were sprayed on the island to kill the spores.
Image: Kevin Walsh
Gruinard Island was declared free of danger in 1990, but there may yet be some risk, for no one knows what the long-term effects of formaldehyde poisoning are.
You have to be brave to live on this patch of land. Miyakejima Island, nestled in the Izu island group off Japan, is a volcanic island with an active volcano that erupts every few years, but much more deadly is the poisonous sulfuric gas that seeps from the mountain as well as from the ground.
In July 2000, Miyakejima’s Mount Oyama erupted (again) prompting evacuations that were completed by September of the same year. No one was allowed back for five years, but even now residents are said to have to carry gas masks with them at all times in case the alarm goes off warning of high sulfur levels in the air. Unbelievably, Miyakejima has become a tourist spot, with stores selling gas masks to holidaymakers as they explore the island or boat or swim off it. Sulfur is still being emitted, but some like a little danger with their vacation, it seems!
5. Runit Island
Enewetak Atoll is a part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The island of note here is Runit Island. This is because the US conducted nuclear testing on the atoll for years – until the late 1970s, when some residents were allowed to return. Unfortunately, a massive cleanup operation was needed which the US undertook in 1977, taking 111,000 cubic yards of contaminated earth and other materials from nearby islands and burying it in a blast crater at the end of Runit Island.
The US military built an 18-inch, 100,000-square-foot cement cap comprising 358 concrete panels – known as the Cactus Dome – to cover the contaminated earth and debris. In 1980, the government decided Runit Island was safe for habitation. We wonder if they specified for whom? It seems to us that this island is safe for nothing on this planet, human or animal.
The island of Vozrozhdeniya, also somewhat ironically known as Rebirth Island, and now shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is unique in that with the shrinking waters of the Aral Sea it has now effectively rejoined the mainland. However, though it may no longer technically be an island, we still don’t think you will want to step foot on it! In 1948, the Soviets established a bioweapons lab here that tested some of the most dangerous disease agents known. Smallpox, anthrax and tularemia are just a few of them.
According to newly released documents, anthrax spores and bubonic plague bacteria were made into weapons and kept here. The island was abandoned in 1992. In 2000, the US helped decontaminate ten anthrax storage sites, and the Kazakhstanis say that was all of them. No one should be stepping foot on Vozrozhdeniya any time soon, though, as the disease-carrying containers stored here have been known to leak.
Image: National Archives
3. Bikini Atoll
Operation Crossroads, which took place in 1946, consisted of a series of nuclear explosions at Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. One of these blasts was the Baker explosion (pictured top), which released highly radioactive water which contaminated numerous nearby vessels that subsequently needed to be decontaminated.
Then in March 1954, the United States also exploded the first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in Operation Castle Bravo – the biggest nuclear blast ever created by the US. Massive radiation fell out far beyond expectations, extensively contaminating nearby islands as well as the crew of at least one Japanese fishing boat on which 23 sailors became contaminated. The scandal was the basis for the movie Godzilla, in fact. In 1968 the US government decided that Bikini Atoll was fit for habitation again, but unfortunately they spoke too soon.
In 1978, French scientists found high levels of strontium-90 in indigenous people’s bodies, and there have been many miscarriages and other health problems suffered by the islanders living on Bikini Atoll.
The indigenous population were thus moved again, with a large monetary settlement made for their survival. Most of the people refuse to move back until Bikini Atoll is scraped to remove any last contaminants.
Image: Jan Roletto
2. Farallon Island
Farallon Island, situated off the coast of San Francisco, is absolutely beautiful. It is a Natural Wildlife Refuge with whales, seals and sharks, and a home to many seabirds. Divers visit to explore the area – but there is a major safety concern.
Image: Carrie K. Fuller
For many years, from 1946 to 1970, the sea in the area was used as a nuclear waste dump. The exact risk to the environment is unknown, but the belief is that trying to raise the containers from the area surrounding Farallon Island will cause more danger than leaving them where they are. In all there are 47,500 55-gallon drums. That’s a whole lot of hazardous waste.
Sometimes known as Rabbit Island, Okunoshima was for years home to Japan’s World War II poison gas factory. Because secrecy was so important to the Japanese – they had just signed the treaty banning poison gas in war – they wiped the island off their maps. Six kilotons of mustard gas were produced here, with rabbits used as the laboratory animals.
At the end of the war the Allies got rid of all the poison gas. The little children who had looked after the rabbits during the testing let them loose and now the bunnies are protected on the island. Okunoshima has been cleaned up, although it still has the remnants of its history as well as a poison gas museum. What’s more, there may still be the question of the gas the Allies buried, which – who knows? – may yet come to light.
The actions of men in their quest to try to tap and control destructive forces has caused islands to become uninhabitable or at least of questionable safety. Even decisions made about the habitability of an island after a cleanup has occurred are of dubious value given that the long-term effects of what they use to carry out such operations are still unknown in some cases. These islands are all places that have killed or still have the capacity to kill, long after humans have stopped their activities. It seems that common sense has taken a back seat to risk. Hopefully one day we will think twice about trying to destroy the land and oceans that are our inheritance, and that of all the creatures on this planet.
Image: Sergeant Wackett
Bonus Entry: Ramree Island
There is a lot of controversy over whether or not the events said to have taken place on Ramree Island off Burma in 1945 during WWII happened as described by some – including naturalist Bruce Wright – with disputes over the number of deaths that took place. During the Battle of Ramree Island, the Japanese were forced into the swampland of Ramree and were unable to escape. The story goes that the majority of them were slaughtered by the crocodiles which infested the swamp.
Image: Molly Ebersold
According to the witness report of one British Marine: “That night [of the 19 February 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left… Of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive.” Whether this is an exaggeration is still unclear, but we certainly wouldn’t want to venture into the swamps of Ramree to find out!