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🔬 "This Iceberg Idea May Be The Future of Water"

(don't) Waste Water!

Photo by Derek Oyen / Unsplash

Host: Antoine Walter
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[1:30] “Abdulla Alshehi is an ambitious businessman with a dream: bringing an iceberg to the United Arab Emirates. He wrote about that in a book, ten years ago. And honestly, not all the ideas listed in that book were fully ready to be implemented. […] Alshehi actually has four arguments to promote his Iceberg project.”

[2:07] “First and above all, a big chunk of ice happens to be a perfect reservoir of drinking water. Mining an iceberg the size of Alshehi's ambitions to float to the Emirates would, according to him, cover the needs of one million people for up to five years. We’ve already seen that iceberg water is pretty popular when bottled, so there’s no reason why a point of use production of the purest water there is on Earth wouldn’t appeal to Dubai residents. Hence, the plan is to replicate a practice that’s quite common in, for instance, Canada, where, besides water bottles, melted icebergs also serve as the key ingredient to the World’s purest Vodka. But according to Abdulla Alshehi, the benefits don’t stop there.”

[2:54] “The drinking water produced through the melted iceberg would be so much less water that would need to come out of a desalination plant. Which in turn, means fewer brines rejected to the sea, a factor that’s not to neglect when you consider that the Emirate’s desalination plants account for 15% of the World’s capacity.”

[3:12] “Good Reason number three: bringing rain in the desert. Indeed, there shall be a column of cold air above the iceberg, attracting clouds and more clouds means more rain. The argument sounds about right if we consider that the iceberg will create a cold front. Finally, in a region where people come to ski indoors, having a chance to walk on a real iceberg while having the Palm or the Burj Khalifa as a background for your selfies is clearly an appeal for new forms of tourism, […] not “sustainable tourism.” […] But what if I told you that towing Icebergs is an Idea that’s been around for about two centuries?”

[4:18] “An 1825 essay collection published in London already mentions the “old project of towing icebergs into the southern ocean, for the purpose of equalizing the temperature on earth.” […] The Encyclopedia of Antarctica reports how small icebergs were towed for refrigerating purposes in breweries in the mid-nineteenth century. Small ships were conveying them from Laguna San Rafael to Valparaiso, sometimes even mounting sails on the icebergs. […] In 1863, the ninth volume of the Scientific American reports how a “Genius in New Bedford” is developing a steamer to tow icebergs to India, where they sell for six cents a pound. Yet even more disruptive, another one plans to fit a screw in the Iceberg itself, thus avoiding the expense of shipbuilding. […] The British army seriously considered and tested the option of icebergs as an aircraft carrier during the second world war.

[5:22] “Before that, in 1914, the Washington Times featured an ad: […] “Wanted – Tugboat captains and ice dealers who would be interested in towing icebergs into harbors.” The ad was from the Northern Berg Ice Company, which was planning to tow icebergs into Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, exhibit them by excursion steamers, and then dynamite the bergs into small pieces for the ice market. […] 1949 is the year where all of that gets a bit more serious when John Isaacs mentions an Iceberg Towing project.”

[7:09] “John Isaacs later expanded on the Idea and estimated the ideal iceberg shall be an 8 billion ton one, 30 kilometers long, one kilometer wide and 300 meters deep. […] Towing it from Antarctica to San Diego would take 200 days, and as it would leverage as much as possible from the sea currents, it would only cost 0.001 cents per ton to move. Now, according to Isaacs, at the size of that iceberg, it would still represent an energy need of one to two atomic bombs. That may sound pharaonic, but he puts it in comparison with the energy needed to desalinate the same amount of water, which would rather be in the scale of tens of thousands of atomic bombs.”

[8:03] “John Isaacs kept expanding on his Iceberg Ideas for the rest of his career. Even though he died in 1980, and thus never met Abdulla Alshehi, he got eventually asked what he thought of towing an Iceberg to the Middle East when that project first emerged in the 1970s. To him, it sounded at best a bad idea, if not impossible. His rationale was that towing Antarctica icebergs would have much more to do with surfing ocean currents than with goods shipment. Hence, it may be wiser to first target places like Chile, Peru, South Africa, or Australia.”

[8:51] “So far, aside from the small pieces, the Chilean brewers were dragging, that full topic of iceberg Towing is still very theoretical. That all changed in the 1960s when oil companies developed an actual towing technology to move icebergs. Nothing overly complicated: you circle the iceberg with a rope and pull it with a ship from a distance of about 200 meters. Oil companies didn’t do that to harvest the icebergs for drinking water purposes. They just wanted to avoid a reverse Titanic incident. […] So, since the 1960s, they employ iceberg hunters that drag the pieces of ice out of the oil platform’s direct neighborhood. That’s commonplace nowadays, as hundreds of icebergs are deflected from oil rig’s trajectory every year.”

[10:01] “In 1973, RAND, one of the World’s largest think tanks, produces a 96 pages report for the National Science Foundation simply called “Antarctic Icebergs as a Global Fresh Water Resource.” To them, the idea is not only possible but simply brilliant. They start by assessing the opportunity: with one trillion cubic meters of icebergs produced in Antarctica every year, that renewable water source could possibly cover the water needs of 5 billion people. They then estimate that the icebergs’ climate impact is negligible compared with the Antarctica sea and land ice. So you could harvest all of them with very little if any impact. Anyways, they recommend aiming for 10% of the icebergs, at least to start with, and to select the best-shaped ones, thanks to NASA satellite imaging.”

[11:35] “But how much would it cost? According to RAND, about $8 per thousand cubic meters of ice towed, and another $8 per thousand cubic meters to transform that ice into drinking water upon arrival. Factoring in the transfer of that water to distribution terminals on-shore, that study accounts for a $30 price tag per thousand cubic meters of iceberg water. Hence RAND’s conclusion confirming John Isaacs’ intuition: all in all, iceberg water is much cheaper than desalination, interbasin water transfers, or water reclamation.

[12:15] “One of the paper’s authors, John Hult, left RAND to create his company with the project to wrap an iceberg in plastic and tow it to Southern California for 30 million dollars. He would then bottle it in souvenirs for tourists and sell the bulk of it as drinking water to Los Angeles. And that attracted a major player in this iceberg harvesting game: Prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, son of the King of Saudi Arabia. The Prince was then the official in charge of Saudi Arabia’s desalination program, which he saw as costly and inefficient, requiring vast amounts of capital to build desalination plants, and equally vast amounts of energy to run them. Intrigued and appealed by RAND’s report, he started investigating the Iceberg topic. In June 1977, the New York Times reports on one of his ideas with french explorator Paul-Emile Victor: using nuclear submarines to push icebergs to arid places of the world. In October, he funded an Iceberg conference at the Iowa University, where he was joined by scientists from 18 countries. To make a lasting impression, he proceeded to capture and transport a piece of Alaskan iceberg through helicopter, plane, and truck. […] The conference became an annual event and perdured into the 1980s. In 1978, the California legislature became the first public body to officially approve an iceberg towing project, and in 1979 NASA integrates it into its ice and climate research program. Prince Mohammed creates his dedicated company, Iceberg Towing International, and appoints a french engineer, Georges Mougin, as CEO.”

[14:04] “But the interest starts to cool down. […] Indeed, moving icebergs around still raises many questions. What would be the international acceptability of exploiting Antarctic resources? What may be the environmental consequences along the way and upon arrival? And probably the most problematic one: are we really sure that the melting process won’t be too fast? Wilford Weeks of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory was vocal about that concern in a Time Magazine article. “Once you get north of the equator, you’ll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow.” […] Prince Mohammed moved on, stopped financing research, and closed its Iceberg Company in 1980.”

[15:13] “Georges Mougin, Prince Mohammed’s Company’s former CEO, kept the dream alive. He went through a kind of desert, as no serious new project emerged for almost two decades. But in 2003, Mougin teamed up with Dassault Systèmes, to leverage a revolution. In 20 years, many things had changed. He now had access to much more meteorological data, and you no longer needed NASA’s involvement to have live access to satellite data. But even more game-changing, modeling had made a quantum leap. That’s how the model built by the team showed that, towing a 7 million ton tabular iceberg would only request one single tugboat, with a 130 tons traction strength. The Iceberg would travel at a speed of little under a knot. And it would take 141 days to complete a journey from Newfoundland to the Canaria while losing 38% of its masses. […] It seems like that project faded out for unknown reasons around 2013 after a movie was made on it in 2011.”

[17:06] “If there’s one city in the World that’s well aware that there’s a 40% gap between the World’s projected water withdrawals in 2030 and the existing accessible and reliable water supplies, it’s Cape Town. Indeed, they went very close to Day Zero in 2017, and even if last-minute rain finally bettered the situation, they know that climate change won’t give them a rest. Hence Nick Sloane’s project to tow an iceberg to Cape Town. Sloane, who notably was in charge of refloating the infamous Costa Concordia, would deal with the towing, and Mougin bring his 40 years iceberg background. These two have also built a full team of experts around them.”

[18:44] “So will an Iceberg ever float next to Cape Town, San Diego, Perth, or Dubai? Will it be crushed and mixed in the desperately drying reservoirs of cities in arid places? Who knows? […] In a world where people pay a fortune to acquire bottled iceberg water, it is honestly quite surprising that no one has taken the plunge yet. […] In February, two United Nations scientists published a paper for the World Economic Forum, reviewing alternative water sources that may solve dry areas’ challenges. And iceberg harvesting made it to their shortlist.

Rating: 💧💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 20 min | 🗓️ 09/05/2021
✅ Time saved: 17 min

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