For decades, many people around the world have looked at icebergs and thought, “What if?” What if icebergs could be dragged north through the world’s oceans? What if those millions of frozen gallons of fresh water could be melted into drinking water for arid, water-starved places?
The dream of converting icebergs into drinking water never materialized, including a plan in the late 1940s to pull an 8 billion-ton iceberg from Antarctica to San Diego, California, where it would be enclosed in a floating, impermeable fence. John D. Isaacs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who developed the scheme, envisioned that the iceberg would melt into a freshwater lake from which water could be pumped.
Dream resurfaced in the 1970s
That idea never got off the ground, but the dream resurfaced in the 1970s when the U.S. National Science Foundation backed research into whether icebergs from the Antarctic could be a “global fresh water resource.” Their work considered the feasibility of outfitting icebergs with nuclear-powered propellers that would push the giant chunks of ice through the ocean. According to calculations, moving icebergs would be cheaper and create less of an impact on the environment than desalination, an expensive method of converting salt water into fresh water, according to the report.
The report, which The National described as “highly technical,” concluded that there was “no obvious insurmountable obstacle” to the plan. The idea gained support, and four years later the first and only International Conference on Iceberg Utilization for Fresh Water Production was held at Iowa State University. A former science advisor likened the ambitiousness of the iceberg idea to that of the U.S. space program.
Ultimately, however, the idea died again.
Businessman revives idea
Almost four decades later, the world’s outlook on the environment and economy have changed, and another visionary businessman has revived the idea of solving the water shortages with icebergs. Abdullah Al-Shehi, an engineer who founded the National Advisor Bureau Limited, has proposed towing Antarctic icebergs to Fujairah, a coastal emirate of the United Arab Emirates. The idea is one of several that Al-Shehi, the managing director of the organization, proposed in his 2015 book, Filling the Empty Quarter, in order to alleviate the water crisis in the UAE and the surrounding region.
While the UAE Ministry of Energy has publicly stated that the iceberg idea is just a rumor, experts have weighed in on both sides of the issue. Some laud Al-Shehi as another creative dreamer in line with visionaries who have built the UAE into a prosperous and innovative country. Others say a plan to pull icebergs more than 5,500 miles from Antarctica to the UAE is preposterous.
Here’s what experts are saying:
- The ideas is a “stunt” without enough details to take seriously
- In May, Newsweek reporter Callum Paton wrote about iceberg naysayers who cite “pitfalls” such as icebergs melting before they reach their destination and the difficulty of towing them through strong Artic ocean currents and choppy waters.
- It’s too expensive
- Charlotte Streck, the head of the consulting firm Climate Focus, told the Associated Press that that towing icebergs was contrary to “all ideas of climate change adaption” and was “exceptionally futile.” The startup cost of the project would be at least $500 million, Robert Brears of Mitidaption, a climate think tank, told the Associated Press.
- There’s too much red tape
- The land and waters of the Antarctic are monitored, which means businesses can’t just remove icebergs at will. Global treaties have imposed environmental regulations on the region, and towing icebergs through the ocean would require permission from the governments of several countries, including Australia. That country restricts access to large ships, which can harm ecosystems.
However, Al-Shehi is undeterred. He believes that the sheer size of the icebergs, which hold billions of gallons of fresh water, would help to solve one of the region’s most perplexing problems: As populations increase in arid, desert regions, how can countries provide enough water for their citizens and businesses? Not only would icebergs provide an abundance of fresh water, but the cold air surrounding them might bring more rain to the region, Al-Shehi said in a press statement to Gulf News.
Scheme could take advantage of climate change
Besides, the scheme could take advantage of climate change. Warming temperatures are causing large icebergs to crumble, sending smaller icebergs floating away. “…They melt, wasting billions of gallons of the water resources of the Earth,” Al-Shehi recently told Fast Company. Twenty billion gallons of water, which he believes could be harvested from a single iceberg, would provide several years’ supply of drinking water to millions of people.
Al-Shehi also believes that moving icebergs out of Antarctica could reduce sea level rise, which occurs when Artic ice melts. When the chunks of ice melt in the Middle East, they could dilute the salt-heavy water that desalination plants deposit into the seas along the coast. An iceberg could also cool off hot desert regions, Al-Shehi told Fast Company.
Search for investors
Al-Shehi has said that he is now looking for investors for the first iceberg trip, which he would like to start within a year or two. His plan would include selecting an iceberg via a satellite photo, wrapping it in insulation, and pulling it with barges. When it is about 15 miles off the coast, the iceberg would be crushed, loaded onto tankers, and transported to shore.
While it’s a new process, Al-Shehi isn’t lacking confidence about it. He has said his business is already mapping a route for the first iceberg’s yearlong journey north.