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Human Effort

195: Iceberg-towing tugs

Problem:

Global warming means that some regions are stricken by historic droughts while at the same time ice from polar waters is melting at an equally unprecedented rate.

Solution:

Take the cold water to the hot regions.


The volume of water that breaks off Antarctica as icebergs each year is greater than the total global consumption of freshwater. This does not include Arctic ice.

According to a National Geographic report, “the towering glaciers” of west Antarctica “are crumbling and melting, the rate speeding up over the decades and imperiling the stability of the entire ice sheet.”

Greenland is also reported to be losing its ice sheet at an alarming rate. With Europe’s heatwave reaching the Arctic, 11 billion tons (10 billion tonnes) of Greenland’s surface ice was lost to the sea in the biggest melt of the summer.

This is pure freshwater, effectively wasted as it melts into the sea and contributes to rising sea levels.

More icebergs come out of Antarctica than the total global consumption of freshwater. Every year this is around 140,000 icebergs, or 2,000 billion ton (1800 billion tonnes) of ice. These all melt in the sea.

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. The EU received proposals in the 2010s to tow an iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands.

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 could dry up and a city of four million people would run out of water. Personal use of water was limited to 50 liters 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, and that they were trying to find alternatives.

Since 1975, Saudi Prince Mohamed Al-Faisal, a nephew of the Saudi king, has wanted to tow an Antarctic iceberg across the equator to Saudi Arabia, and funded two international conferences on the subject.

He enlisted the help of French engineer Georges Mougin along with other engineers and a polar explorer, in a venture called “Iceberg Transport International.” Faisal planned on wrapping a 100-million-ton iceberg in sailcloth and plastic to keep it cool and tugging it from the North Pole to the Red Sea, though the cost was estimated at an exorbitant US$100 million.

For a swank conference on “iceberg utilization,” he even managed to ship, via helicopter, plane, and truck, a two-ton “mini-berg” from Alaska to Iowa, where the giant block of ice was chipped apart to chill delegates’ drinks. According to a Time report from October of 1977, Faisal predicted that he would have an iceberg in Arabia “within three years.”

Twenty years later Emirati businessman Abdulla Alshehi began to fund a project to ship an enormous Antarctic iceberg all the way to Perth. The 10-month endeavour will see an iceberg, measuring approximately 1.5 mi (2 km) by 540 yd (500 m), dragged by tugboat from Antarctic waters to the Arabian Gulf. It uses 3-D technology, recently declassified satellite data, and the new science of oceanic forecasting.

The large body could lose 30 % of its mass on the way over, but the Emirati “ice pirate” said enough would still be left over to provide fresh water to one million UAE residents over five years. The trial is set to take place in either Perth or Cape Town and if successful will see an even bigger chunk towed via tugboat to the Fujairah coast in the UAE. Generally, the weight of icebergs ranges from 100,000-200,000 metric tons.

An iceberg of that size can contain almost 25 to 50 million gallons (100 to 200 million liters) of fresh water. This would be a huge boon to the UAE which receives just 4 in (10 cm) of precipitation annually and receives much of its potable water from desalination.

In addition to providing water, the company hopes the introduction of the icebergs will have an impact on the environment. They claimed that melting icebergs will release freshwater into the Arabian Sea in a manner intended to “rebuild ecological balance, reduce seawater salinity caused by brine discharge from desalination plants and restore biodiversity.”

The company also claims that cold air from the iceberg parked off the coast could change the climate of the desert nations, generating year-round rainstorms.

Visit us tomorrow for Solution 196: Hydrogen from polluted water

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