Why is the world's largest artificial island in the shape of a palm tree?

By: Sarah Dowdey

Palm Island Construction

A dredger pumps sand to form a palm-shaped island
A dredger pumps sand to form a palm-shaped island
Jorge Ferrari/AFP/Getty Images

Construction on the palm islands began in 2001. Divers surveyed the seabed and worke­rs constructed a crescent-shaped breakwater from blasted mountain rock. The Crescent of Palm Jumeirah stands a little more than 13 feet above low tide sea level and sits in 34 feet of water at its deepest point.

Sand, covered by an erosion-preventing water-permeable geo-textile, makes up the breakwater's lowest layer. One-ton rocks cover the sand, and two layers of large rocks weighing up to six tons each cap the structure. A "toe" placed by a floating crane sits inside the Crescent. The breakwater also has two 328-foot openings on each side to eliminate stagnation in the 16 narrow, deep channels. These gaps allow water to completely circulate every 13 days.


­Although five workers were swept away­ by a wave and one drowned, the designers at Nakheel believe the breakwater will protect the palm island from average gulf weather and even an enormous storm. They even suggest that villas barely 10 feet above sea level will be safe from the rising seas of global warming.

The palm islands themselves are constructed from sand dredged from the sea floor. Palm Jumeirah is made from 3,257,212,970.389 cubic feet of ocean sand vibro-compacted into place [source: The Palm Jumeirah]. Vibro-compaction increases the density of loose sand by saturating it with jets of water and vibrating it with probes [source: TerraSystems].

To get the complex shape just right, designers and contractors use Differential Global Positioning Systems (DGPS) to plot the palm and ensure the sand placement within 0.39 of an inch.

Palm Jumeirah is already packed with villas and hotels, with some early buyers complaining that the plots are more closely spaced than they were led to believe. Buyers are a mixture of long-term residents, vacationers and speculators hoping to cash in on skyrocketing prices. When the island is complete, Nakheel expects 120,000 residents and workers plus as many as 20,000 tourists a day. Construction workers lived on the fronds and in anchored cruise ships while building the island.

­To facilitate tourism and make life easier for residents, the six-lane Sub-Sea Tunnel connects Palm Jumeirah to the mainland. Workers used a dam to drain the area and excavate the seabed before rereleasing the water. Developers have plans for a four-stop monorail that will race the length of the palm.

To learn more about the Palm Islands and Dubai, look over the links below.

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  • "Dubai's palm island being readied for first residents." USA Today. August 7, 2006.
  • "Dubai's palm island hit by blaze." BBC News. May 6, 2007.
  • Krane, Jim. "Arab Island Resorts are Reshaping Geography." MSNBC. March 8, 2005.
  • "Meet the first resident of Dubai's palm-shaped man-made island." Daily Mail. June 22, 2007.
  • Molavi, Afshin. "Sudden City." National Geographic. January, 2007
  • "The Palm." Nakheel Co.
  • Reina, Peter. "Palm-Shaped Islands Symbolize Dubai's New Wealth." ENR. November 6, 2006. http://proquest.umi/com/pqdweb?did=1161838961&Fmt=3&clientld=30451&RQT=309&VName=PQD
  • "UAE unveils mega-waterfront plan." BBC News. January 29, 2005.
  • Weiner, Eric. "Building 'The World' off the Coast of Dubai." NPR. June 13, 2005.