If towing icebergs to hot, water-stressed regions sounds totally crazy to you, then consider this: the volume of water that breaks off Antarctica as icebergs each year is greater than the total global consumption of freshwater. And that stat doesn’t even include Arctic ice. This is pure freshwater, effectively wasted as it melts into the sea and contributes to rising sea levels. Does it sound less crazy now?
This untapped flow of water has enticed scientists and entrepreneurs for over a century.There were 19th-Century schemes to deliver by steam-boat to India, and to supply breweries in Chile. In the 1940s, John Isaacs of the Scripps Oceanographic Institute proposed towing an iceberg to San Diego to quench a Californian drought. In the 1970s, Saudi Prince Mohamed Al-Faisal wanted to tow an Antarctic iceberg across the equator to Saudi Arabia, and funded two international conferences on the subject. The EU received proposals in the 2010s to tow an iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands.
All these plans have one thing in common, however – none of them ever actually happened.
Yet they still keep coming. The latest iceberg-towing schemes to emerge have come from Cape Town and the United Arab Emirates – two regions suffering from extreme and persistent water shortages. In the spring of 2018, Cape Town came ominously near to ‘Day Zero’ – the day the reservoirs dried up and a city of four million people would run out of water. Personal use of water was limited to 50 litres per day. When the rains finally came, Day Zero was averted, but perhaps only for another year. Meanwhile in the UAE, one of the world’s most arid states, the energy minister has declared water consumption a “huge concern” for the country, adding, “we are trying to find alternative solutions”. Could the alternative be icebergs?
The latest iceberg proposals read like a heist movie. Most of the plans since the 1970s have involved the same names who, now in their 70s and 80s, are coming back for ‘one last job’. The potential bounty – a several million-tonne diamond of ice – is just too big for them to resist. But this is no bunch crackpots or chancers. They include some of the biggest names in glaciology: Professor Peter Wadhams, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, from 1987-92; Dr Olav Orheim, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute from 1993 to 2005; and Georges Mougin, the original French engineer behind Prince Al-Faisal’s scheme.
Peter Wadhams first became aware of Isaac’s 1940s proposal while working at Scripps at the start of his career. “Prince Faisal then cottoned onto this idea, and asked ‘can we tow icebergs to Saudi Arabia?’ Of course, the obvious answer is ‘no’ because you’ve got to get them across the equator and they melt, but nobody told him that because he had a lot of money to put in, and he funded a lot of research.” Two Saudi-funded conferences later – at Ames, Iowa, and the Scott Polar Research Institute, featuring plans by Wadhams, Mougin and Orheim – convinced a lot of people that it could be done. Only, not as far as the Gulf. The tow needed to be done within a reasonably narrow latitude and in relatively cold waters. The Saudi project failed on both counts, and the project was shelved in the early 1980s, says Wadhams, “but we continued to think about it and work on it, without significant funding.”