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Is the Future On Water? WCFS Experts Search For Solutions

Facing challenges from global warming, rising sea levels and natural disasters, experts consider life on water at the World Conference on Floating Solutions.



Shimizu Construction imagines a floating metropolis, like Noah's Ark. (Screenshot of Shimizu Construction video, "Environmental Island.")

Tokyo played host to the World Conference on Floating Solutions (WCFS) 2023 from August 28 to 30. Aimed at highlighting floating technology, it offered water-based solutions for a wide range of issues including disaster mitigation. As if for emphasis, the conference immediately preceded the centennial anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1.

Related themes pursued at WCFS 2023 were equally timely. They included biotechnology, fish farming, storm surges, wind power, flooding, and rising sea levels. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake inflicted devastation on Japan's capital city of Tokyo. Moreover, the ensuing fires and tsunamis enhanced the damage. These also devastated nearby communities down the coastline, such as those in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of the port city of Yokohama

Going back further, inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago have historically been challenged by natural disasters. In recent memory the country witnessed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, among others. This situation has led the nation to actively search for disaster mitigation measures.

Great Kanto Earthquake
The Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo, including these buildings near Hibiya intersection. The fire that followed the earthquake enveloped the area in black smoke. September 1923.

Japanese Technological Prowess

The archipelago that makes up Japan sits atop multiple tectonic plates along the Pacific Ring of Fire. Due to the rather unique topological features, the country is susceptible to floods, mudslides and other regional vulnerabilities.

To safeguard against natural calamities such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons, the country has established various institutions. One of them is the Typhoon Research Center in Yokohama, which opened in 2021. However, Japan must also remain vigilant and well-prepared for human-induced disasters, including shipwrecks during violent storms and dam breaches.

Interestingly, many of the innovative floating solutions at the WCFS conference were grounded in Japan's disaster experience and earlier Japanese engineering projects. For example, there were plans for airports/heliports on floating platforms for the proposed American Bicentennial Expo of 1976. Although plans for a big event were aborted, these designs offered an inspiring peek into what floating technology could look like in the future.

Will humans be living on floating platforms in the future? Shimizu Corporation thinks so. (Screenshot from Shimizu Co "Environmental Island" video.)

'Noah's Ark' Gambit? 

As an Island country, Japan faces a myriad of issues when it comes to natural disasters. But what do "floating solutions" offer?

Going afloat may not be a panacea, but it offers practical solutions to issues associated with major earthquakes, flooding, tsunamis, sea-level rise, and the loss of coastlines.

For instance, a WCFS participant noted that buildings could be made to float on water using damper cushioning that would be sturdier than the the rubber stilts used in some structures. This would make them less prone to damage in the event of a large disruptive earthquake. The idea was on display at the WCFS "Waterpolitan" exhibit corner. 

Everblue Technologies offers water-based sailing technology at the WCFS conference, (© SA Pomeroy)

Another noteworthy proposal involved the construction of "walls" that can grow in height. These walls would be particularly useful in preventing flooding in regions where water levels rise gradually, assuming that the area experiences minimal waves and turbulence. This concept is feasible with the current state of technology and Japan's shipbuilding know-how, provided meticulous attention is given to the finer technical details.

An idea that particularly stood out at the conference was the concept of a floating "Noah's Ark" metropolis. This concept is similar to how many Japanese fishermen venture into the open sea when anticipating a tsunami. They are able to ride out the impending waves from the sea.

A "Noah's Ark," if built sturdily enough with cutting-edge engineering, holds the potential to withstand the onslaught of cresting waves and debris. Theoretically it offers the possibility of surviving a tsunami with waves reaching up to a dozen meters. 

Shimizu Corporation thinks their floating platforms could work as an urban environments for human life. (Screenshot of Shimizu Construction video, "Environmental Island.")

Bridge to Tomorrow 

There are many other examples of using floating platforms. After all, Japan has been a pioneer in producing oil using offshore rigs. But the most prominent example recently has been offshore wind power generators and fish farms. 

As a visitor from Singapore's government observed, many countries are running out of land. This is caused not only by population growth but also by environmental factors. Therefore, Singapore, as an island nation, has been contemplating the possibility of using floaters as a solution for residential purposes. This concept was first proposed several years ago.

Imagine 'Flying Cars' over Osaka Bay (provided by Osaka Prefecture)

Shimizu Corporation, a giant general contractor, and Chodai Co Ltd, known for its expertise in bridge construction, are principal backers of the WCFS. Chodai, too, is exploring the potential of floating platforms. They are planning to conduct an experimental project involving a floating platform for flying cars as taxis, possibly in conjunction with the upcoming Osaka Kansai Expo 2025

"The Earth is mostly covered with water, so we should come to understand it and make friends with it." Those words paraphrase wisdom shared by the late M Scott Carpenter. Known as a Mercury astronaut, Carpenter was also the first aquanaut on the US Navy's SEALAB. He became involved in biotech and energy after leaving NASA and the US Navy.


Author: SA Pomeroy

Mr Pomeroy is a Texan who has been working in Tokyo for the vernacular press since 1989. He has also contributed to the Japanese-language "Global Keizai" magazine and Oriental Economist's "Bio Business Explained" book.

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