Towing icebergs to temperate or warm climates to create a fresh water source has a long history. Alexis Madrigal’s “The Many Failures and Few Successes of Zany Iceberg Towing Schemes” for The Atlantic (2011) gives a tongue-in-cheek overview that stretches back to the 1800s, but there wasn’t really a serious push in research until the 1970s — after oil drilling companies had devised methods to tow icebergs away from oil rigs — when the RAND Corporation completed a feasibility study (1973) that looked at the totality of need, method, use, and impact seemingly for the first time since serious use of icebergs entered the scientific community’s discourse. After this, the cause was taken up by Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, which began with a conference at Iowa State University. According to TIME Magazine:
Sponsored by Prince Mohammed al Faisal, a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Khalid, the conference demonstrated that there is no shortage of ideas for using icebergs to slake the world's growing thirst. Prince Faisal's own company, Iceberg Transport International, is considering a plan to find a 100 million-ton iceberg off Antarctica, wrap it in sailcloth and plastic to slow its melting, and then use powerful tugboats to tow it to the Arabian peninsula, where it would supply enormous quantities of drinking water. The journey would take about eight months and the project would cost around $100 million, according to estimates (1977).
After these conferences died off in the 1980s, not much happened in the world of iceberg towing until into the 2000s. However, in the intervening years, researched was focused on water scarcity and how, without these miraculous sources of fresh water, the fresh water that is accessible could be stewarded sustainably.
In 1995, International Food Policy Research Institute research fellow Mark Rosegrant states that around 30 countries were, at the time, water stressed (defined as having fresh water resources between 1,000 and 1,600 cubic meters per capita per year) and about 20 countries were water scarce (less than 1,000 cubic meters of fresh water resources per capita per year). This is problematic as a forecast into the 2000s because, as Rosegrant claims, there is enough fresh water runoff to provide for the foreseeable future, but its distribution is extremely uneven across and between any metric. Interestingly, Rosegrant has an entire section in his brief titled “Development of New Water” and, despite mentioning research from the 1970s, does not include icebergs as a source of fresh water at all (he does mention icebergs briefly in his introduction, counting statistically where exactly the fresh water is in the world). All signs point to iceberg research not being taken seriously at all after the 1980s and certainly not in the 1990s: even Madrigal’s article has nothing to say about icebergs except for pithy pop culture references from the film Brewster’s Millions and Dean Koontz’s novel Icebound. However, Rosegrant’s brief does point to the rising social, economic, and ecological importance of water. This follows with work from the journal Water Policy in 1998.
Arjen Hoekstra focuses on four perspectives borrowed from cultural theorist Michael Thompson, which they then apply to how societies perceive water as a resource. Thompson et al.’s cultural theory “explains how ways of life maintain (or fail to maintain) themselves” (as cited in Hoekstra, 1998). This theory separates “ways of life” into four distinct groups: hierarchist, egalitarian, individualist, and fatalist. Hoekstra then applied these ways of life to how each group would view water scarcity specifically.
Table 1 shows the water scarcity issues on the far left column and the generalized approach each group would take toward it. Hoekstra’s analysis frees the conception of water stressed and scarce from purely economic or resource terms and suggests multiple systems based on individual societies’ cultural perspectives, basic values, beliefs, and assumptions (1998). As is elucidated with the return to modern iceberg-towing and commodification fervor, it is easy to see that the individualist and fatalist ways of life have taken precedence in the global conversation.
“As the world warms and the ice melts faster than climate scientists’ earlier predictions, we face an unanticipated race. Which will move faster: The thaw or the opportunists moving in to capitalize on it?” (Casale & Harmanci, 2014). Casale and Harmanci’s “The Cold Rush” focuses on the recent boom in business propositions regarding icebergs, many of which deal with icebergs calving from Canada and Iceland’s glaciers. One successful company from Canada, the Iceberg Vodka Corporation, uses water from icebergs to distill vodka and had debuted a bottled water in 2013. The company’s pitch for the bottled water (still available today):
ICEBERG Water is sourced from unspoilt ice that has naturally detached from the Canadian Arctic ice shelf and travelled down south for five to seven years. During the warmer months of the year they reach the Newfoundland coastline where they can be captured, before they finally melt into the ocean. This makes ICEBERG Water a natural water, only available when nature decides it is ready and at the quantities nature dictates.
For hundreds of years, local populations have harvested water from icebergs as they drift along the coastline for their purity and natural healing properties. Following this tradition ICEBERG Water delicately harvests a small number of icebergs each year, under license from the Canadian government.
As of 2014, there hadn’t been a consensus on who controls what ice and towing all the way from Antarctica was completely ignored — those icebergs, according to researcher Robert Brears, are simply too big and dangerous to even attempt towing (Casale & Harmanci, 2014). However, capitalism can’t be kept down: multiple news reports through 2017 and 2018 announced a new venture by the private company National Advisor Bureau (NAB) of Abu Dhabi to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to the United Arab Emirates (Haskins, 2018). This idea isn’t at all new: it was the primary focus of research from the 1970s and the point of Prince Faisal of Saudia Arabia’s involvement (he, too, wanted to drag an iceberg all the way from Antarctica to the desert). While the NAB provided no details aside from some marketing material (figure 1), research from the 1970s can clarify what the benefit of doing this would be.
At the Western Snow Conference of 1974, an associate professor of civil engineering from Colorado State University gave a very succinct summary of, essentially, RAND Corporation’s research from the year before. In summary, glaciers are less dense than solid ice, accumulating snow throughout winter months and then ablating in summer as evaporation or run off, combined with the creeping a glacier does downslope. Glaciers actually accumulate much faster than they ablate, but as they creep into warmer environments and meet the ocean, sheets of glacier ice break off and become icebergs (Schultz, 1974). As a natural process, and according to the marketing of contemporary companies, it seems like a waste to let this icebergs drift into warmer climates, melt, and raise sea levels. Schultz points to the benefits of capturing icebergs in his own research, naming three: provide a source of fresh water; provide a heat sink; and remove potential navigation hazards (1974).
However, this research from the 1970s cannot take into account the rapid acceleration of climate change and its effect on glaciers — meanwhile, companies profiting off of water ignore these effects. Haskins reports from research released in 2018 by the University of Leeds that 219 billion metric tons of ice (compared to the stable 76 billion metric tons since the 1990s) has been lost in the last five years, or about 40 percent of all Antarctic-related sea level rise.
Most troubling about the NAB’s seemingly half-baked plan is the lack of involvement by the government of the United Arab Emirates. They disavowed the project in 2017 and haven’t said anything about it since. Haskins points out that water scarcity doesn’t only affect the United Arab Emirates (2018) and Rosegrant estimated at least 20 countries were water scarce in 1995 — as fresh water sources deplete and ocean levels rise, what controls will governments put in place to prevent total water privatization? Will ICEBERG Water continue to be a luxury from Canadian icebergs or can North Atlantic icebergs be towed to water scarce regions at least in the northern hemisphere, if not further (if the NAB’s research pans out)?
Despite how the world is turning its attention back to utilizing icebergs as a source of fresh water, renewed research spent on truly feasible methods of reclaiming that source of fresh water could be an effective way to manage sea level rise in the short term and create a more egalitarian distribution of water as a resource in the long term — only if societies can move past their individualist or fatalist perspectives.
- Casale, R., & Harmanci, R. (2014). The cold rush. Modern Farmer. Retrieved from https://modernfarmer.com/2014/01/cold-rush/
- Haskins, C. (2018). This company wants to tow icebergs to the water-scarce desert. The Outline. Retrieved from https://theoutline.com/post/5202/this-company-wants-to-tow-icebergs-to-the-water-scarce-desert
- Haskins, C. (2018). Antarctica is screwed and so are we. The Outline. Retrieved from https://theoutline.com/post/4920/antarctica-is-screwed-research-climate-change-global-warming-melting
- Hoekstra, A. (1998). Appreciation of water: four perspectives. Water Policy, 1(6), 605-622. Madrigal, A. (2011). The many failures and few successes of zany iceberg towing schemes. The Atlantic. Retried from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/the-many-failures-and-few-successes-of-zany-iceberg-towing-schemes/243364/
- The RAND Corporation. (1973). Antarctic Icebergs as a Global Fresh Water Resource. J. L. Hult & N. C. Ostrander. https://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/R1255.html
- Rosegrant, M. W. (1995). Dealing with water scarcity in the next century. 2020 Vision Briefs, 21. http://www.ifpri.org/publication/dealing-water-scarcity-next-century
- Schultz, E. F. (1974). Proceedings from the 42nd Annual Meeting, Western Snow Conference: Harvesting Glacier Ice. Anchorage, AK. https://westernsnowconference.org/PDFs/1974Schulz.pdf