10 Uninhabited Islands—and the Reasons They’re Devoid of Humans

Some of these islands were never occupied by humans, but the majority have been abandoned due to their unsavory histories.
There’s a reason no one lives on Palmyra Atoll.
There’s a reason no one lives on Palmyra Atoll. / Kydd Pollock, USFWS Pacific Region, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are countless uninhabited and abandoned islands around the world. Why isn’t anyone living on them? After all, 250 people live on Tristan da Cunha, which is 2430 kilometers from the next inhabited island. Let’s look at a few islands that remain uninhabited for financial, political, environmental, or religious reasons.

1. Ōkunoshima Island, Japan

Bunnies Attract Tourists To A Japanese Islet Okunoshima
Bunnies attract tourists Ōkunoshima. / Chris McGrath/GettyImages

Three kilometers off the coast of Japan, Ōkunoshima Island is overrun with rabbits, which are not native to the land. But there are no human residents on Ōkunoshima Island. It was the site of a chemical weapons plant that produced poison gas for the Japanese Imperial Army from 1929 to 1945. In one rabbit origin story, the Allied Occupation Forces dismantled the plant and let laboratory animals go free, and the bunnies quickly populated the island. Another tale suggests that visiting schoolchildren released rabbits on the island in 1971. Ōkunashima was opened to tourism in the 1960s, and since then, viral videos of the furry inhabitants have caused visitor numbers to soar.

2. Antipodes Islands, New Zealand

A survival hut in the Antipodes Islands.
A hut in the Antipodes group is stocked with food, water, and other items for the use of shipwreck survivors. / LawrieM, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In Māori, this group of subantarctic volcanic islets is called Moutere Mahue—“abandoned islands.” The cold climate and harsh winds make the Antipodes too inhospitable for permanent human settlement. Numerous shipwrecked sailors survived on the island before being rescued or dying from the elements. Two people died after being shipwrecked there as recently as 1999.

3. Jaco Island, East Timor

The beach on Jaco Island, East Timor
The beach on Jaco Island. / Isabel Nolasco, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Jaco Island in East Timor has no permanent inhabitants because local people consider it sacred land. However, that does not mean they won’t accommodate tourists. Day trips as well as camping on the island is allowed. Fishermen double as vendors to the tourists. Since 2007, Jaco Island has been part of Nino Konis Santana National Park.

4. Clipperton Island, France

A view of abandoned Clipperton Island.
A view of abandoned Clipperton Island. / Shannon Rankin, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Clipperton Island is a coral atoll south of Mexico and west of Guatemala in the eastern Pacific. It was claimed first by France, then the U.S., where workers mined it for guano. Mexico took possession in 1897 and allowed a British company to mine guano there. In 1914, the Mexican civil war caused the island’s 100 or so residents to be cut off from transportation and supplies. In 1917, the last surviving islanders, three women, were rescued and evacuated. Ownership reverted to France, which operated a lighthouse on Clipperton Island. It was completely abandoned after World War II.

5. North Brother Island, United States

One of the abandoned structures on North Brother Island.
One of the abandoned structures on North Brother Island. / Reivax, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

How can an island in the East River in New York City be forgotten? Because it’s a protected bird sancutary, and therefore off-limits to the public. North Brother Island has quite a history. Riverside Hospital opened a quarantine facility for smallpox patients on the 20-acre island in 1885. The hospital later took in patients with other communicable diseases, such as venereal disease and typhoid. It was here that Typhoid Mary lived for two decades until her death in 1938. The hospital closed in 1942, but the buildings were used for veterans’ housing for a while, then as a rehab center for those with substance abuse disorders, but corruption and civil rights violations forced the facility to close for good in 1963. The buildings still stand in their ruined state, and are said to be haunted by the many who died or suffered there.

6. Battleship Island, Japan

Hashima or “Battleship” Island in Japan.
Hashima or “Battleship” Island in Japan. / Σ64, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Hashima Island in Japan is often referred to as Battleship Island because that’s what it looks like. About 15 kilometers from Nagasaki, the island sat above a profitable coal seam that was mined from 1887 until 1974. Miners and their families lived on the island, which is only around 15 acres in size. At its height, Hashima Island had over 5000 residents, densely packed into large apartment blocks. When the coal business fizzled, those buildings were left empty and derelict. It became dangerous to even set foot on the island, though it was opened to tourism in 2009.

7. Fort Carroll Island, United States

Fort Carroll Island near Baltimore, Maryland.
Fort Carroll Island near Baltimore, Maryland. / WorldIslandInfo.com, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1847, the U.S. military built Fort Carroll in the middle of the Patapsco River to protect Baltimore, Maryland. The site was selected because experience showed that a defensive fort built too close to a city created more problems than it solved. The artificial island was built under the supervision of a young Robert E. Lee, who also designed the island’s hexagonal shape. The fort was still incomplete by the time the Civil War began. Construction was halted, and by the time the war was over, the facility’s insufficiency became obvious. The fort was modernized, but not in time to be of much use during the Spanish-American War. By 1921, the army had abandoned Fort Carroll for good. The island was sold to a private developer in 1958, but various plans to use it proved too difficult and expensive to carry out. The fort remains, though it’s slowly crumbling into ruin. 

8. Lazzaretto Nuovo, Italy

A garden and building on Lazzaretto Nuovo, Italy.
A garden and building on Lazzaretto Nuovo, Italy. / TheRunnerUp, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Lazzaretto Nuovo is an island situated at the entrance of the lagoon that envelops Venice, Italy. It was a monastery in medieval times, then in 1468 was designated as a quarantine area for ships to protect the city from the plague. This continued until the 18th century, when the quarantine facilities were abandoned, and Lazzeretto Nuovo eventually became a military base. The Italian army abandoned the site in 1975, and it suffered years of neglect. Then community efforts turned it into a cultural museum, now supported by the Italian Ministry of Arts and Culture. The island is open for tourism.

9. Tree Island

Tree Island in the South China Sea
Tree Island’s ownership is disputed. / Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tree Island in the South China Sea is one of the Paracel Islands under disputed ownership. It is administered by China’s Hainan Province, but like the other Paracel Islands, it’s claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as well. Tourists can visit the island with permission, but the only temporary inhabitants are military troops.

10. Palmyra Atoll, United States

Palms drape over clear water at Strawn Island, one of more than 50 islets at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Palms drape over clear water at Strawn Island, one of more than 50 islets at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific. / Laura Beauregard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Palmyra Atoll, 1000 miles south of Hawaii, is a territory owned by the United States. However, as isolated as it is, it’s officially uninhabited and unorganized. The U.S. military built an airstrip there during World War II, which has fallen into ruin. The atoll now is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the exception of Cooper Island, which is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Palmyra Atoll was the setting for a double murder in 1974, which became the basis for the novel and then miniseries called And the Sea Will Tell.

A version of this story was published in 2012; it has been updated for 2024.