The Reason Long Island Isn't Considered an Island

iStock
iStock

Here’s a deceptive question: Is Long Island an island? It’s surrounded on all sides by water, yet for legal purposes, it isn’t an island. In 1985, all nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed. Long Island, that mass of land completely surrounded by water, is not an island. It’s a peninsula. One that just happens to have a little water between it and the mainland. 

The case in question, United States v. Maine, arose over disputes between states and the federal government over who legally controls the water between the eastern tip of Long Island and Rhode Island (Block Island Sound).

If Long Island were legally an island, that water would be considered the open sea, and therefore be regulated by the federal government. As a peninsula, the water around it (and the soil at the bottom of the sound) comes under the authority of the states surrounding it. 

Image Credit: Google Maps

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s geographically unsound ruling, the island is an extension of the New York mainland, and ships passing through the bay to its north need a state-licensed captain, per New York and Rhode Island law. Here’s the Supreme Court’s logic on why the island is not an island, according to the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday:

The court was led to its conclusion as a result of Long Island's shape and relation to the corresponding coast. According to the ruling, Long Island's north shore follows the south shore of the opposite mainland. But the shapes of the two lands almost completely surround the Long Island Sound.

The court also determined that Long Island and the adjacent shore share a common geological history, which contributes to its lack of island-ness. Deposits of sediment and rocks from the mainland formed the shores by ice sheets that retreated thousands of years ago, according to the ruling.

Technically, the East River, the body of water that separates Long Island from Manhattan and the Bronx (on the New York mainland), is a tidal strait, rather than a river. Since the East River is relatively shallow, difficult for ships to navigate, and not an outlet to the sea, it doesn’t count, the Court essentially argued. Newsday points out that scientific experts don't support this argument—geologically, the two islands are made of very different kinds of rock that formed at millions of years apart. But, as a matter of political expediency, it’s more convenient for Long Island to be a peninsula so New York can exercise jurisdiction over it (and reap whatever natural resources it can from that). 

While it may have simplified interstate squabbles, the demotion to peninsula status did cause Long Island to lose out on its designation as the longest island in the lower 48 states.

Can You Name the Original Capitals of These States?

Why Alaska is Home to America's Easternmost Point

Semisopochnoi Island, top right, is the easternmost point of the United States.
Semisopochnoi Island, top right, is the easternmost point of the United States.
Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory) using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons. // Public Domain

In the contiguous United States, the farthest east anyone can travel without tripping into the ocean is the lighthouse at West Quoddy Head, Maine (coordinates: 44.815ºN 66.951ºW). But this beautiful spot at the northeastern tip of the Pine Tree State is not actually the easternmost point of the United States. That designation belongs, curiously, to a state that is considered part of America's west—Alaska.

While most of the United States is firmly planted in the globe's western hemisphere, America happens to possess plenty of islands and territories on the eastern half of the planet: Saipan, Guam, and Wake Island to name a few. All of these Pacific islands sit on the other side of the 180th meridian, which separates the eastern hemisphere from west, and are technically east of the mainland United States.

(Guam, an American territory with more than 150,000 American citizens, likes to boast about its eastern location, billing itself as the place where "America's Day Begins"—though, technically, that distinction goes to Wake Island. Located on the opposite side of the International Date Line, Guam sees sunrise 15 hours before New York City.)

Yet Guam (coordinates: 13.444°N, 144.793°E) is not the easternmost point of the United States either. That honor resides with an uninhabited Aleutian Island called Semisopochnoi.

Translated from Russian, Semisopochnoi means "having seven hills." It sits about 10 miles from the 180th meridian, making it America's most eastern piece of real estate in the eastern hemisphere (coordinates: 51.960°N, 179.772°E). "In other words," Ken Jennings writes for CN Traveler, "Semisopochnoi and the dozen or so Aleutian islands lying beyond it are so far west that they're actually east!" Of those, Semisopochnoi is the closest to the 180th degree longitude.

Today, this volcanic island in Alaska is home to millions of seabirds, mainly a penguin-like critter called the auklet. It's also heavily monitored by volcanologists, "likely due to its location under prominent trans-Pacific flight route," WIRED reports.

And the pedantic geography fun facts don't stop there! Since the Aleutian Islands cross the 180th meridian, they happen to contain the easternmost and westernmost spots in the United States: the latter honor belongs to the small island of Amatignak (coordinates: 51.270°N, 179.119°W), which is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

All told, the distance between the easternmost and westernmost points in the United States is just 71 miles.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER