European Union
European Union's Flag

Faroe Islands
Faroe Islands' Flag

Iceland's Flag

New Zealand
New Zealand / Aotearoa's Flag

Overseas Territories
United Kingdom
United Kingdom's Flag



Island Vulnerability Projects

Island Vulnerability explores the challenges which isolated geographies face when dealing with risk and disasters by examining the processes which create, maintain, and could be used to reduce their vulnerability. The following projects are suggested for understanding, communicating, and reducing island vulnerability:

Some of these projects are merely ideas which need to be properly investigated and expanded. As well, many tend to tread the fine line between research and application by academically tackling the fundamentals of the topics while seeking practical outputs which can be applied operationally. Therefore, they are unlikely to satisfy either the academic or practitioner community.

Suggestions would be welcome regarding revision of the proposals to meet specific needs so that this field could continue bringing togetherresearch and application. Suggestions for references on these topics or indications of omissions or errors are encouraged. Please Contact Island Vulnerability.

Biodiversity Limits on Small Islands

Proposal by Ilan Kelman.

The physical size and resource limitations of a small island might set a specific limit on the numbers of mammals or birds which could be sustained by that island (not numbers of species, but numbers of individuals). Notwithstanding that ecodiversity is probably a more useful indicator than biodiversity, has any work been done related to the smallest scale at which biodiversity is a useful measure of a healthy ecosystem? This question applies to ecodiversity too.

Suppose that the maximum number of creatures which a location could support is L. For simplicity, taking a crude measure of biodiversity as being the number of species (S), then the number of individuals per species averages at L/S. L/S presumably has a definite lower bound before a genetic bottleneck is created. On non-islands, L is huge (for example, for human beings on Earth, it might be about 109 so for less wasteful creatures on a continent, L >> 109 is realistic). Thus, even for S approximately SQRT(L), L/S is a large number and genetic bottlenecks are unlikely.

On small islands, though, if L = 10,000, then S = 100 (viable) might cause problems. Thus, how small must an island be before biodiversity becomes a hindrance to ecosystem survival?

A parallel thought is that simplicity has its own beauty. Would a small island ecosystem be more effective with, say, S = 10 where each species balances well with the others as opposed to S = 100 with intense competition for resources? On the other hand, the S = 10 model is highly vulnerable. An extreme event could eradicate life on the island. In contrast, S = 100 could lose half its species but still regenerate an ecosystem. Yet even if S = 10 were wiped out, colonisation would eventually bring life back to the island, possibly as a different yet balanced S = 10 system.

Overall, the query becomes: Is there a scale at which increased biodiversity (or ecodiversity) is not necessarily beneficial to the long-term survival of the ecosystem?

Bird on Pangaimotu, Tonga.

Bird on Pangaimotu, Tonga. How many individuals could this small island support?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2004.)

Disaster Ecology for Pacific Islands

Proposal written by Ilan Kelman but with ideas and help from many others.

The aims of this research are to understand, and to recommend ways of reducing and preventing, the vulnerability to disasters of Pacific island communities. The hypothesis is that the concept of "Disaster Ecology" based on:

Lewis, J. 1978 (February). "Disaster Ecology: An International Journal for the Study of the Avoidance and Mitigation of Natural Disaster". Editorial prepared for Crane Russak and Company Inc., New York, U.S.A., full text (242 kb in PDF).

Lewis, J. 1980. "The Ecological Integration of Disaster Relief". Reprint in English from the article published as "De integratie van een beleid voor rampenbestrijding in de ecologische problematiek", Aspecten van internationale samenwerking, No. 6, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, full text (245 kb in PDF).

Lewis, J. 1980 (March). The Ecology of Natural Disaster: Implications for development planners, Document prepared at the Project for the Analysis of Natural Disaster Vulnerability, Centre for Development studies, University of Bath, U.K. full text (1,147 kb in PDF).

can be developed and applied to vulnerability prevention and reduction for Pacific island communities. Disaster Ecology investigates the role of disaster in the relationship between society and its environment. Disaster Ecology applies not only to society’s reactions following a disaster, but also to the influence of the threat of disaster on society’s attitudes and decisions, which may lead to prevention, mitigation and adaptation activities.

The term "Pacific island community" could refer to (a) individual islands; (b) island groups defined by political boundaries, e.g. states or territories; or (c) islands brought together by a shared disaster experience, e.g. islands in a single tropical cyclone’s track or all islands which are active volcanoes. Focusing on island communities recognises their inherent physical, social, economic and ecological fragility due to their size, isolation and remoteness. These characteristics become particularly evident when considering vulnerability because island communities tend to have higher relative vulnerability and proportionally higher consequences from a disaster than larger and less isolated geographical areas (Lewis, 1999; Pelling and Uitto, 2001). Such challenges do not preclude the opportunities presented by island communities for understanding and reducing vulnerability. SOPAC (2001), for example, used Pacific island communities to develop an environmental vulnerability index.

The research proposed here would go beyond such work by examining the interactions amongst social vulnerability, environmental vulnerability and development processes throughout Pacific island communities. These island systems provide the compactness and isolation needed to determine the inter-relationships of decisions and activities, along with links between causes and effects, in complicated processes such as vulnerability management and development (Lewis, 1999). Disaster Ecology would analyse these interactions.

Case studies of Pacific island communities would form the core of this research. Pacific island communities are particularly important due to their relative isolation and disparity, even by island standards. Examples of entire island communities being threatened are Cyclone Martin striking Manihiki in the Cook Islands in 1997, Cyclone Heta striking Niue in 2004, and the struggle with the potentially permanent evacuation of Tuvalu and Tokelau due to sea-level rise. Due to the growing awareness that natural hazards and political instability interact to augment society’s long-term vulnerability, the political crises and violence in Fiji, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands must be considered as illustrations of the diversity of vulnerabilities affecting these communities.

A two-tier approach would be adopted. Groups of Pacific island communities would be defined and analysed to establish vulnerability patterns and to identify potential locations or events for in-depth research. From these results, case studies would be selected to compare different communities and vulnerabilities through the participation of islanders.

Two contributions to knowledge would result. The first would contribute to the conceptual understanding of the vulnerability of island communities. New theory would be developed through the model of Disaster Ecology and through new methodologies for determining vulnerability patterns. Root causes of observed vulnerability and mechanisms for reducing and preventing vulnerability would be established. The second contribution would occur at a case study level by applying the new knowledge to specific Pacific island communities for producing comprehensive vulnerability profiles and for recommending vulnerability reduction strategies. The outcome of combining these two contributions would provide a strong basis for future work in applying Disaster Ecology to non-Pacific island communities and to non-island geographies.


Lewis, J. 1999. Development in Disaster-Prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, U.K.

Pelling, M. and J.I. Uitto. 2001. "Small Island Developing States: Natural Disaster Vulnerability and Global Change". Environmental Hazards, vol. 3, no. 2 (September), pp. 49-62.

Upolu, Samoa.

Upolu, Samoa.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2004.)

Read more about Disaster Ecology (322 kb in PDF).

Island Dispersiveness Index
(Island Scatteredness Index)

Proposal by Ilan Kelman and James Lewis.

The project would examine the possibility of developing a mathematical or statistical measure of the dispersiveness and scatteredness of island states and island regions. For example, the 122 km2 of St. Helena and the 400 km2 of Barbados are substantial "smallnesses" when compared to that of Tuvalu's 26 km2. Much more significant is that Tuvalu's minimal land area is scattered amongst nine atolls over oceanic distances of 650 km. Although all are "small" (islands or states), the experience of their land formations, whether by visitors or indigenous inhabitants, is vastly different.

Thus, an additional categorization of "islands" would be useful, indicating a scale of "dispersiveness", "scatteredness", or "entireness". It would begin to convey the fragility and the remoteness that is a part of a special experience of islands. "Remoteness from what?"--such as a continental land mass, capital city, or other islands—-would need to be considered. Smallness is a more complex matter than simply size, particularly in an ecological context.

How could this experience of smallness be quantified?

An example would be to consider a simple function which measures the distance from a state's capital to every single square centimetre of that state. Summing these distances, possibly with an RMS (root mean square) function or other weighting function, and then normalising the result according to the state's area (or some function of area and number of, or population on, the islands) could yield a "dispersiveness index" or "scatteredness index". The actual calculation would not use square centimetres, but would use infinitesimal areas. Rather than summing the distance functions, integration would occur over two dimensions.

This index might then be indicative of different policies or strategies which should be adopted for sustainability, such as environmental management and disaster prevention and response. Other factors such as political stability or economic governance approach might need to be considered at this stage alongside the index.

Emulating geographical spheres of influence, a decay function as a weighting factor could be introduced indicating how far the influence of decisions or policies extends from the location where the decision is made (e.g. the state or provincial capital). The decay function would not necessarily decrease monotonically with distance, because transport networks can bring far away locales much closer together for political purposes. The dispersiveness index enters here to indicate relative distance.

Considering disasters and vulnerability, a network (graph) of nodes and vertices could be created to represent the area on three levels:

  • The influence of governance, such as economic and investment changes, on each location (part of vulnerability).

  • The spatial distribution of the potential hazards.

  • The spatial distribution of specific disaster events.

If these three networks were examined through time and superposed mathematically or visually, changes in disaster events could be contrasted with changes in specific vulnerabilities while noting where hazards arise. Taking into account variations of the physical presence of potential hazards, correlations between changes in vulnerability and changes in disaster events could be determined. Some locations would be under the influence of more than one decay function (sphere of influence) which would lead to overlaps and intersections amongst the networks.

The main challenges are:

  • Defining the parameters to quantify.

  • Obtaining good data.

The advantages of developing this suggested approach are:

  • A systematic method is provided (although many details in the above would need to be clarified).

  • The influence on the results of uncertainties in parameters and data is easily calculated and described.

  • The approach is relatively comprehensive and could easily be expanded to account for new factors.

  • Patterns at different spatial and temporal scales, which are often difficult to understand and compare, should be obvious with this method.

  • Decision-makers have a tendency of responding to clearly presented numerical results and visual outputs rather than to qualitative, accurate prose.

A formal literature search has not been completed, so this index might already exist. If not, it would provide a useful tool for island-related policy- and decision-making along with communication of those decisions and policies.

A Fijian Atoll.

A Fijian Atoll, Far From the Capital.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2004.)

Island Evacuation

Proposal by Ilan Kelman.

Under several sea-level rise scenarios, many island communities might be inundated or severely disrupted, although a catastrophic outcome is not inevitable. In circumstances where an island or island community might no longer be inhabitable, evacuation of the entire population and permanent abandonment would be an option. Precedents exist for such discussion from volcanic disasters on islands; for example, Niua Fo’ou (Tonga) in 1946, Tristan da Cunha in the 1960s, Vestmannaeyjar (Iceland) in 1973, and Montserrat in the 1990s (see also the document by Henry Gaudru, March 2005, Potential Impacts Of Eruptions On Volcanic Islands, 106 kb in Rich Text Format). These situations were unsuccessful from a long-term evacuation perspective--which might have been a positive long-term result. For sea-level rise and other potential impacts from global environmental change, the only long-term option available might end up being successful evacuation.

Areas of investigation include:

  • Indicating the likelihood of enacting evacuation and seeking alternatives.

  • Examining the psychological and logistical preparedness for evacuation and abandonment.

  • Recommending preparation techniques and methods of anticipating and avoiding the problems encountered in previous case studies.

  • Ensuring that mechanisms existed for communicating with, especially listening to, the people being affected.

  • Investigating ways of attempting to build new communities with reduced vulnerabilities.

Some publications on this topic are:

  • Kelman, I. 2006. "Climate Change and Islands: Scientists Serving Society?". ISISA Newsletter (International Small Islands Studies Association), vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 5-6, full text (9 kb in PDF).

  • Kelman, I. 2006. "Island Security and Disaster Diplomacy in the Context of Climate Change". Les Cahiers de la Sécurité, vol. 63, pp. 61-94, more information and full text (as a webpage).

  • Kelman, I. 2007. "Climate Change and Islands: Are Scientists Serving Society?" UCAR Staff Notes Monthly, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 4-5, full text (as a webpage).

  • Kelman, I. 2008. "Island Evacuation". Forced Migration Review, issue 31 (October 2008), pp. 20-21, full text (as a webpage).

  • Kelman, I., S. McNeeley, and H. Lazrus. 2007. "Climate Change and Islands: The Media Serving Society?". ISISA Newsletter (International Small Islands Studies Association), vol. 7, no. 1, p. 4, full text (11 kb in PDF).


Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

Geodesic Dome in Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.
Evacuated during a volcanic eruption in 1973 but still a thriving community today. Where else could you find a grocery shop in a geodesic dome?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2001.)

Managing Vulnerabilities of Small Island Heritage

Project by Ilan Kelman in collaboration with the U.K. National Trust.

This project examined how managing the vulnerabilities of heritage could be used to achieve sustainable island communities. Case studies are the Faroe Islands, Rathlin Island (Nothern Ireland), and Brownsea Island (southern England).

This project was completed in 2003 for an Arkell European Fellowship kindly funded by the U.K.'s National Trust (now The National Trust Travel Fellowship). The summary and full report are available here courtesy of the National Trust. Please contact Island Vulnerability with questions, comments, or feedback.

Download the project's summary:

Download the project's report:

Brownsea Island's Cottages. Sea Defences on Brownsea Island.

Brownsea Island's Heritage Cottages which are the Islanders' Homes.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2003.)

Attempts at Sea Defences on Brownsea Island.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2003.)

More information and photographs are available for the Faroe Islands Faroe Islands' Flag

Regional Coordination of Island Vulnerability Reduction

Proposal by Ilan Kelman.

The Caribbean Region has intensely complex political geography. The complexity arises from the four main languages, the differences in territorial status amongst the European overseas territories, and the loose correlation between geographical position and political/linguistic affiliation. For example, the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking territories are scattered throughout the Caribbean. Aruba is not part of the Netherlands Antilles (it was until 1986 when it became an autonomous part of the Netherlands ), but the French-speaking territories are all legally part of France and hence the European Union, with the exception of Haïti which is an independent country. Meanwhile, only one Central American country is not part of the Caribbean--El Salvador, but it is a member of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS)--while the English-speaking mainland countries of Belize and Guyana are often considered to be in the Caribbean anglophone island community, since they are English "islands" in their respective regions. Furthermore, Puerto Rico and USVI have different statuses within the U.S.A. and different linguistic characteristics while Cuba has been isolated regionally and internationally in many ways by the U.S.A. Cuba was excluded from the Quebec Summit Plan of Action of the Organization of American States (OAS) which had a section on disaster management activities and Cuba is not participating in the Inter-American Committee for Natural Disaster Reduction (IACNDR).

Such complexities may create coordination challenges amongst different sectors and regional and geographical groupings such as CARICOM (including the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI)) and CARIFORUM. For example, Montserrat is in CARICOM but in neither CARIFORUM nor ACS while Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, and France are in ACS (as Associate Members), but in neither CARICOM nor CARIFORUM, although Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles are CARICOM observers. The most prominent regional disaster management agency, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) was established in 1991 by an agreement of the Heads of Government of CARICOM yet its member states, as with CEHI, are so far only the anglophone islands, including Guyana and Belize.

In contrast, natural hazards do not respect political boundaries. Thus, this project would:

  • Extract lessons from the Caribbean, such as from CDERA’s activities, to determine how to overcome the difficulties to ensure coordinated vulnerability management across all sectors and the entire region.

  • Examine any mechanisms implemented for overcoming linguistic, political, and geographical barriers.

  • Determine whether the lessons would be transferable.

A comparison could be completed with the Pacific where the regional disaster management agency the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) faces islands which are small and remote even by island standards. Examining how SOPAC overcomes their challenges would be useful to compare techniques and results with the Caribbean.

CDERA's Website.

SOPAC's Website.

Websites of CDERA and SOPAC.

Vulnerability Reduction for Island Museums

Proposal by Ilan Kelman and Caroline Lanthier.

Museums not only preserve cultural and natural heritage, but are important institutions for education and research. Locally-run museums sited in the location to which each museum applies are particularly beneficial. Each location’s heritage and culture may be interpreted and presented by the local people for the local people while encouraging outsiders to visit a location to study heritage.

The loss of artefacts, displays, and institutions during a disaster can be a significant to blow to a location’s heritage and ability to educate on the topic. Heritage vulnerability also includes gradual decay over time, such as from the effects of humidity or exposure to sea spray, and loss of interest, such as from emigration of skilled personal and shifting priorities amongst youth.

This project would:

  • Examine the state of vulnerability management in specific island museums.

  • Compare and contrast the approaches to see if lessons would be transferable.

  • Undertake to communicate lessons where appropriate and examine the possibility for recommending improvements in awareness of the issues and logistics.

The Manager of a Local Faroese Museum Points to One of his Displays.

The Manager of a Local Faroese Museum Points to One of his Displays.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2003.)

More information and photographs are available for the Faroe Islands Faroe Islands' Flag

Vulnerability Reduction in Border Regions

Proposal by Ilan Kelman.

Island Vulnerability explores the challenges which isolated geographies face when dealing with risk and disasters by examining the processes which create, maintain, and could be used to reduce their vulnerability. Border regions are often as isolated and otherwise marginalised geographies as islands. Thus, border regions may display many risk, disaster, development, and vulnerability challenges similar to islands. The study of borders can therefore inform islands and other isolated geographies while being informed by studies of other isolated geographies. This project would explore the characteristics of border regions and their vulnerabilities. Comparisons and contrasts with islands and other isolated geographies would be made.

Some examples of borders, illustrating their diversity and often arbitrariness, are found on the borders images page (potentially long download time due to approximately 1.5 MB of images).

The images illustrate that, at times, an artificial line is drawn, irrespective of hazards existing, thereby creating vulnerabilities which previously did not exist and which otherwise would not exist. The issues are particularly difficult at points where more than two states meet. In cases where the border is not arbitrary--for example, delineated by a river or mountain range--issues of transboundary hazard, vulnerability, risk, and disaster management emerge. A river might flood approximately equally on both banks (similar hazard), but a disaster might occur on one bank but not the other (different vulnerabilities).

Contact Island Vulnerability.

The material on the Island Vulnerability website is provided as only an information source. Neither definitive advice nor recommendations are implied. Each person or organisation accessing the website is responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed and are strongly advised to verify all information. No liability will be accepted for loss or damage incurred as a result of using the material on this website. The appearance of external links on this website does not constitute endorsement of the organisations, information, products, or services contained on that external website.