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Engineering feat of the month: Dubai’s Palm Islands

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Over the coming months we will be looking into some of the world’s biggest and best engineering feats. The first part of this series will focus on Dubai’s iconic and luxurious Palm Islands.

The Palm Islands, which were launched in September 2008, are the biggest man made islands in the world. Mass tourism is big on the agenda for the United Arab Emirates and the Palm Islands are already playing a pivotal role as a honey-pot for wealthy tourists.

The ambitious plan was for the 5.5 km island to host numerous beaches, hotels and shopping malls. The scope of the project meant calling on some of the very best engineers in the world.

The first problem they faced was how to create a big enough breakwater to protect the reclaimed island from the sea. This would end up requiring the use of 5.5 million cubic meters of rock (enough to build nearly two pyramids) along with the 94 million cubic meters of sand that was needed for the construction of the island itself. This sand was actually much harder to source than one might think because desert sand is of a much finer texture than sea sand, making it unsuitable for the project. As a result, huge volumes of sand were dredged from the ocean floor and vibro-compacted into place to help increase density. This process of stabilisation took 8 months and the use of 15 specialised machines.

To ensure the shape of the island was perfect the construction team used a private GPS satellite which guided the sand pouring efforts to within 0.39 of an inch.


The shape of the palm tree structure meant that the engineers struggled to keep sea water flowing between the palm shapes. This meant that water could become stagnant as the tides weren’t able to flush the area efficiently. To combat this the engineers cut two 328 foot openings in the outer circle of the structure to provide the flow that the inner area needed in order to keep the water circulating and the beaches fresh.

The other, more obvious issue was the danger that storms and turbulent weather would pose to settlers on the reclaimed land. Along with the breakwater’s lower level made of sand and one-ton rocks, a further two layers were built to create the breakwater’s upper level using larger rocks weighing upwards of six tons apiece. This ensured that the island would be able to withstand the extreme gulf weather. The size of the breakwater also took into account predicted rises in sea levels as a result of global warming.


The finished article, which took nearly a decade to complete, adds 78km to the Dubai coastline and has become home to over 120,000 people of various nationalities. The Palm Islands regularly attract up to 20,000 tourists a day with their huge shopping centres, restaurants and recreational activities on offer. For us, it’s definitely up there as one of the biggest and most ambitious engineering feats of all time.


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