Someone discovers a new large island...

Hypothetical: someone is looking at a satellite photo of the pacific ocean, and they see a reasonably sized (say, about as big as the big island of Hawaii) island that, somehow, no one has noticed until now. It’s way out in the middle of nowhere, far far from any country’s territorial waters.

What happens? There’s a common image left over from the age of exploration of someone planting a national flag and saying “I claim this for Spain”, but did that ever have any recognized meaning in whatever the international law of the day was? Would there be a race to get a ship or helicopter or parachutist out there as soon as possible to “claim” it? Would the nationality of whoever spotted it on the map be relevant?
Suppose there are people living on this island. What happens then, both from a legal and practical standpoint? Presumably there would be a lot of fascination and camera crews would want to go film documentaries and so forth. Who would they talk to to get permission? If this island wasn’t part of any recognized country would it be in any way illegal to just charter a plane, fly there, land, and start interviewing? If not, what organization would have the authority to stop you from doing so? One might hope that there would be some sort of attempt at communication-without-interference (not to mention not giving them all Malaria). Is there some organization with expertise in doing things like that? Where would they get the authority to actually attempt it?

Land belongs to countries because all the other countries agree to act as if a particular piece of land belongs to a particular country.

When a countries don’t agree, they argue about it and either negotiate a settlement, keep arguing, or have a war over it.

If a large island popped up out of nowhere, it could be claimed by all sorts of countries. The nearest country is pretty sure to claim it, and so will any countries whose territorial waters extend around the island, but lots of countries claim all sorts of islands all over the world, so France or Britain or the US or Norway or whoever might randomly decide to claim the island.

De facto possession tends to mean a lot, so if someone moves there an plants a flag and such, that tends to settle things. Or it could end up like Antarctica, where the whole continent is kept unclaimed. But if it’s, you know, a nice place to live unlike Antarctica, then that’s not likely to happen.

So there will be wrangling and arguing over who owns the new island, and eventually there will be a consensus based on the facts on the ground, with plenty of grumbling. But there is no official procedure for determining which country owns which lump of rock, only ad hoc agreements.

If the island already has inhabitants, then they might own the island, but that doesn’t mean the island won’t be annexed or “protected” by some other country. It depends on the level of sophistication of the population.

And of course there is no international force to prevent you from moving anywhere you like, only national forces. If you go to an island claimed by France, for instance, the French might decide to evict you by force. As far as the rest of the world is concerned anybody can go to France, it is up to the French to either let you stay or kick you out. If you move to Antarctica, the signatories to the Antarctica treaty will ship you back home unless you have a valid reason to be there. There is no “Antarctica protection force”, just the individual national/international missions there.

This is a long article in the New York Times about a partially submerged reef in the South China Sea called Ayungin Shoal (by the Filipinos). It’s about 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. But China also claims it (as do a couple of other countries). Now there’s a lot of fish there, which is somewhat interesting but both countries are more interested in the huge oil and gas deposits below the reef. The article describes how a handful of Filipino soldiers are camped out on a rusting, decaying ship leftover from World War II, while Chinese ships hang out nearby. If the Filipinos ever abandon their post, the Chinese case for possession is strengthened. So presumably in the case of a new island, possession is going to count for a lot.

The fancy word for this is terra nullius, literally “nobody’s land”. The Wiki article implies that the general principle is that you have to occupy the land to be recognized as having sovereignty over it, not just plant a flag. Here’s a quote from the US Supreme Court on the subject:

(From New Jersey vs. New York, a 1998 case settling which state owned Ellis Island)

Thomas Perry wrote a novel called *Island, *about a guy who finds a barely-submerged reef right in the tiny space between three Caribbean nations’ circles of territory. He dumps megatons of scrap and fill and builds an island that becomes a new nation. He worked through a lot of the international issues, legalities, being recognized… and having a group of private commandos try to take it for their own. Might be worth reading if you’re interested in a casual/fictionalized take on the notion.

It’s pretty good, but for some reason it was never reprinted and copies hit absurd prices. (Unusual in that Perry’s other books are all in print.) You can now buy it in e-book form from Perry’s website.

I have that book. A fun read, for all its improbabilities. I especially liked them getting a baseball team.

Ferdinandea (a.k.a. Graham Island) appeared suddenly in 1831, and had four different countries attempting to claim it before it sunk back beneath the surface of the Mediterranean a few months later. The conflict served as an inspiration for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Jingo.

This was going to be the basis for my King Kong remake. Skull Island is found to exist in the constantly fogged over region where the currents in the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. It’s an atoll with a boggy center that didn’t register on radar. Maybe I should revisit this idea again so I’ll have never gone anywhere with it twice.

1st link just goes to a Dope new post window…

Antarctica is very far from “unclaimed”.

Here’s the wiki. Don’t know where he intended to point. Check out that flag of Sicily. I’d like to see what Sheldon and Amy would do with that one.

That was, indeed, where I was intending to point. Thanks for the assist. :slight_smile:

Yeah, I just got back from Port Lockroy, and there’s definitely a big ole British flag planted there. They also have a post office, which is nice. And, apropos to not much, they’re currently filming a documentary called Penguin Post Office there, which the scientists on my boat didn’t seem overly impressed with.

The Master speaks.