Meet the people wrangling icebergs for drinking water
by Matthew H. Birkhold / 12 December 2023
“Each June, tourists flock to Newfoundland to catch a glimpse of icebergs. Sparkling as they twist in the frigid waves of the Labrador Sea, icebergs have become one of the Canadian island’s most important industries, attracting more than 100,000 visitors a year. But not everyone is satisfied merely watching the behemoth blocks of frozen freshwater – Ed Kean tries to catch them. He uses his large fishing boat to harvest icebergs, then melts them and sells the water. Many local people swear to its purity and delicious taste. Kean’s mother won’t drink anything else. But Kean won’t have the iceberg business to himself for much longer.
For decades, there has been talk of towing icebergs from the poles to warmer climes to slake the thirst of increasingly parched communities around the world. Now, there are at least three outfits with plans to make it happen. Iceberg harvesting is a concept that has always intrigued me, so I set out to discover whether it is really feasible on a large scale, and whether it can be done safely, without damaging our planet.
Iceberg wrangling isn’t as fanciful as it might sound. The UN predicts that, by 2030, half of the world’s population will face severe water shortages. Yet, there is no absolute shortage of fresh water. It is just that around two-thirds of it is locked away in ice caps and glaciers, which produce tens of thousands of miraculous parcels of frozen fresh water every year and send them into the salty oceans.
I began my investigations by finding out how Kean works. He starts by identifying promising bergs using satellite maps. If they are grounded on the seabed and stable, he uses a crane to scoop up huge masses of ice and feed them into a grinder. At other times, he nets loose chunks, then winches them aboard and hacks them apart using an axe before shovelling the pieces into huge plastic storage containers to melt. Kean has been at this since the 1990s.
Some years, he produces more than 1 million litres of water and sells it to local businesses. East Coast Glow uses the water in its cosmetic products, Quidi Vidi Brewery uses it to make beer and Auk Island Winery blends iceberg water into its berry wines. Since icebergs calve from glaciers that were largely formed before human-made pollution choked our atmosphere, the water they contain is purportedly among the cleanest on Earth. “Icebergs,” quips Kean, “taste like water should taste.” The idea of towing icebergs from the poles to other parts of the world is more outlandish, but it has a long history.
The oceanographer John Dove Isaacs was one of the first to expound it in its modern form. In 1956, he suggested capturing an 8-million-tonne iceberg in the Southern Ocean and towing it to San Diego, California, in 200 days. Another early dreamer was Mohamed Al-Faisal, a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family who became known as “the water prince”. In the 1970s, he concocted plans to tow an iceberg to the Arabian peninsula. Over the years, iceberg-towing mania has waxed and waned, but now things may be at a tipping point. One notable proponent is Nick Sloane, a marine salvage engineer with a good dose of credibility as leader of the team that refloated the Costa Concordia, the vast cruise ship that struck a rock and partially sank in 2012.
For the past few years, he has been working on a plan to tow icebergs to Cape Town, South Africa, which regularly experiences acute water shortages. Closer to the equator, the inventor Abdulla Al-Shehi plans to drag an iceberg to the United Arab Emirates as a source of drinking water. He also wants to use iceberg water to transform the country’s red sands into a green oasis, and recently patented a sun-blocking shield to help protect what he believes will be a massive tourist attraction. Meanwhile, POLEWATER, a private company, is raising millions to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to warmer waters off the African coast and melt it into newly designed “water bags” to use as an emergency freshwater source in regions facing environmental disasters.
The first question these projects must confront is whether iceberg towing is physically feasible (before, for example, it melts). Here, prospects are looking good. Mariners already tow icebergs short distances to stop them colliding with oil rigs in the North Atlantic. The crews encircle the frozen targets with thousands of metres of ultra-high-strength polypropylene rope, closing the snare with a grapple and attaching a steel towing hawser to weigh down the rope. They have learned that it is essential to pull the berg at a point below its centre of mass, otherwise the force causes it to overturn. It is also possible to move very big icebergs: in 2017, the Russian energy company Rosneft claimed to have towed one weighing 1 million tonnes. But when you tow, you must go slow. Vessels can travel at no more than 2 knots (a leisurely walking pace); higher speeds create vibrations that could fracture the ice and cause it to break apart or jolt off the securing ropes.
Towing long distances looks feasible too. Recently, Alan Condron at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts used a mathematical model to simulate icebergs being towed from Antarctica to Cape Town and the United Arab Emirates. Considering solar radiation, wave erosion and heat exchange between the ocean and iceberg, he calculated that an iceberg 300 metres long and 200 metres thick at the time of capture would reach Cape Town with enough bulk remaining to supply 2.4 million litres of water. That would meet the basic drinking water needs of some 700,000 people, or around one-fifth of the city’s population, for one day. Wrapping the berg in an insulating material would result in significantly more surviving. There could also be ways of making the towing easier, for example, releasing bergs into the clockwise-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar current and then, at the right moment, towing them into the northward-flowing Benguela current along the west coast of Africa.
Even if iceberg towing is possible, it still may not be a great idea due to its environmental consequences. After calving, an iceberg freshens the surrounding ocean water and releases nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, iron and sulphur. The denser, saltier water nearby sinks and causes water to circulate, creating an upwelling current that brings more nutrient-rich water to the surface. A web of life then develops around, underneath and above the iceberg.
“Bristle worms (genus: Tomopteris), which live at mid-water depths, act as both predators and prey in iceberg ecosystems. When attacked, they can emit flashes to confuse approaching predators”
Single-celled algae such as diatoms use these minerals and their photosynthesising power to generate energy and grow. Krill then feed on these phytoplankton and make homes in the cracks and crevices of the iceberg. Icefish, comb jellies and segmented worms live among the phytoplankton, too. And icebergs are also important for seabirds, penguins, seals, whales and polar bears. Depending on the size of the berg, the radius of enrichment can stretch for kilometres.
Relocating icebergs would destroy these ecosystems. It would also short-circuit the ability of icebergs to sequester carbon dioxide and require considerable amounts of energy. And it would have an impact on the warmer waters into which any berg were towed. Estimating what exactly would happen is tricky until we actually try it. Olav Orheim, a former director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who is working with Sloane, is in favour of giving it a go. “We can better figure out the environmental consequences once we have actually accomplished the feat,” he says.
Others believe more research is required first, but most people I spoke to support the idea in principle because of its potential for good. My investigations have convinced me that someone is going to try long-distance iceberg towing sooner or later. Personally, I am intrigued and only a little worried to see what happens. Ultimately, the impact of iceberg harvesting will depend on its scale and rate. Here, perhaps, we should take a lesson from history because all of us know that when human hubris meets an iceberg head on, the result can be disastrous.”
Maritime ‘Indiana Jones’ who salvages wrecks wants to tow icebergs
by Matthew Birkhold / February 7, 2023
“Nick Sloane may just be the visionary we need if iceberg towing is to become a reality. His desire to find a solution for the water crisis in Cape Town has convinced him the risk of seeming laughable is worth the reward of collecting these freshwater jewels. Luckily, he is also one of the smartest and bravest people sailing the oceans today. Sloane was born in the British protectorate Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in 1961, and spent his youth sailing on the Indian Ocean. After becoming a master mariner licensed to captain ships of any size anywhere in the world, Sloane turned his attention to salvage operations.
When a vessel goes down, whether an oil tanker, ocean liner, or container ship, Sloane knows how to recover it. He has worked across the globe, from Papua New Guinea to New York Harbor, in some of the harshest conditions imaginable: aboard crumbling ships sometimes on fire, often sinking, and spewing chemicals and oil. Sloane is like a maritime Indiana Jones who has rappelled from a helicopter onto a burning ship and battled armed pirates. In 2013 he became famous for salvaging the wrecked Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which made headlines when it struck a rock off the coast of Tuscany and capsized, killing thirty-three people and causing roughly $2 billion in damage. For his work, Sloane was awarded the prestigious Deutscher Meerespreis from the German ocean research organization GEOMAR and Deutsche Bank.
Salvaging a ship like the Costa Concordia, three football fields long and over one hundred thousand tons, requires extremely specialized knowledge and careful planning. Over thirty months, Sloane organized more than five hundred people to get the job done. In addition to his own bravery, the salvager is a master of logistics and diplomacy. Still, an unquantifiable component is crucial to Sloane’s success. According to GEOMAR, it is due to his being a “born optimist.” Sloane agrees that his sunny outlook is important but also emphasizes the importance of his intuition. Now, his gut tells him the future is in icebergs. Sloane is ready to leverage his deep knowledge of the ocean, engineering expertise, and contacts throughout the maritime world to rescue the country he loves and save its people in dire need of freshwater. The first time I heard Sloane speak was in a YouTube video.
Coming from someone else, the sentiments he shares would seem hackneyed. “You need to never give up on your dreams,” Sloane lilts in his languid accent, “go out and try. Whenever you have an opportunity, take it. And never give up, just keep on going.” Out of Sloane’s mouth, the words take on weighty importance. His silver locks, coifed in a perfect sideswept part, add a certain gravitas. This is a man who has confronted extraordinary danger and lived to tell his tale. For good reason, Sloane is featured in a lot of inspirational materials.
One cannot help but believe in what he says. Nevertheless, Sloane and his competitors face a few obstacles when it comes to icebergs, including physics. It does not take a glaciologist to figure out that the biggest challenge of towing an iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands or Antarctica to South Africa is that the ice will melt before it reaches its destination. Cape Town, for instance, is more than two thousand miles from Antarctica and the water temperature in Table Bay can be fifty degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the Southern Ocean.
To understand the best way to solve the problem, it is helpful to know a little bit about thermodynamics. For that, imagine an ice cube in a glass of water. Why does it melt? The answer is explained by the exchange of energy that occurs. Ice and water, of course, are the same substance in different states. In a liquid state, water molecules bounce around. Warmer water has more kinetic energy than cooler water — think about boiling water compared to room-temperature water. At lower temperatures, those molecules slow down. Eventually, at thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, the molecules have lost so much energy they are better able to stick together. They form stable hydrogen bonds, which expand into crystalline forms. The water freezes and becomes solid.
When an ice cube is plopped into a glass of water, energy is transferred. The faster-moving liquid water molecules hit the ice and lose energy. The stable hydrogen bonds, in turn, absorb energy. The water becomes a little cooler and the ice gets a bit warmer. If there is more water than ice, the ice molecules will eventually soak up enough energy that they get excited and break the bonds that hold them together. The ice, in other words, will melt. A similar process happens to the part of the ice cube floating above the water, since room-temperature air contains more kinetic energy than ice. As the molecules in the air collide with the ice, they cause it to melt. Like with water, a greater air temperature will result in more kinetic energy transferred to the ice and thus a faster melt rate.
If you wanted to melt the ice cube in your glass faster, you could try a few tricks. Blowing on the ice would bring additional air molecules into contact with the cube, transferring more energy to the ice. Swirling the water would also help. Since the water nearest the ice will be coldest as the cube melts, the conduction of energy will begin to slow. Stirring the glass would introduce warmer water with more kinetic energy to the ice, accelerating the melt rate compared to letting the ice sit in place. Conversely, if you wanted to reduce the melt rate, you could add salt to the glass. Because salt water is denser than freshwater, it would sink to the bottom of the glass. This would leave the coldest water — the freshwater melted from the cube — at the top of the glass near the ice, slowing the energy transfer.
The same principles apply to dragging an iceberg to Cape Town. Whether or not an iceberg will make it to its destination depends not just on its size and the distance it will travel but also the water and air temperature, the amount of wind, the ocean currents through which it is pulled, the salinity of the water surrounding it, and the time the berg spends in transport. As roughnecks moving bergs away from oil rigs off the coast of Canada know, going fast is not an option. To minimize the deleterious effects of the energy transfer, there are two main strategies: protect the ice and capture such a large block of ice that it won’t matter if some or even most of it melts.
Many people familiar with icebergs, like Ed Kean, Mike Hicks, and Jamal Qureshi, are doubtful the physics can be overcome. Their incredulity is rooted in extensive hands-on experience. They have seen icebergs fall apart mid-tow. They know the amount of work required to wrangle the beasts. They know just how ephemeral these resources are. Such experience, however, may also limit their imagination. Icebergs can be unfathomably big and humankind possesses massive power. Skeptics of long-distance iceberg towing may just need to dream bigger.”
see also: ICEBERG COMMONS, ICEBERG LAW
$166 Water Could Dictate International Iceberg Law
by Matthew H. Birkhold / October 31, 2019
“I tasted my first iceberg in L’anse aux Meadows, Canada, overlooking the windswept grassland that clings to the northern tip of Newfoundland. I had ordered a martini on the rocks from the only bar in town, and it arrived at my table gently fizzing. The jagged pieces of ice swirling around the glass crackled as the millennia-old air inside escaped. It was good fun, like drinking nature’s Pop Rocks. The restaurant where I sipped my cocktail is one of several businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador that trade on the novelty of icebergs to sell their wares. The Quidi Vidi Brewery, in St. John’s, uses 20,000-year-old iceberg water for its Iceberg, a light lager that comes in a striking cobalt bottle. Auk Island Winery blends iceberg water with wild berries to make specialty wines, and the Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation makes exactly what its name advertises. For my martini, the waiter told me, a cook plucked a piece of ice from the Labrador Sea while out on his Jet Ski. Calved from ancient glaciers formed from fallen snow that compressed over centuries, icebergs contain some of the purest fresh water on Earth, with almost no minerality or pollutants. Arctic inhabitants have long made use of this resource: The Greenlandic Inuit, for instance, traditionally cut pieces from icebergs to melt in water pots during the winter and for fresh water on long summer kayak trips.
Over the past five years, a global roster of speculators has caught on, arriving to exploit icebergs off the coasts of Canada, Greenland, and Norway as a luxury good. A world away, the UAE Iceberg Project has announced (and delayed) plans to drag icebergs about 7,500 miles from the South Indian Ocean to parched customers in the Emirates. These entrepreneurs may be right to see an opportunity. As the world warms, the polar seas are set to fill with more and more bergs. At times, though, this “cold rush” already seems like a free-for-all, which could spell trouble in the future. At present, the best profits in iceberg water may be found in high-end bottles. One of those is a handsome glass vessel with a bespoke wooden cap and sparkling sea-foam-green band, sold by Svalbarði. Jamal Qureshi, a former Wall Street analyst with Norwegian roots, launched Svalbarði in 2015 after a trip to the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard.
Aboard the icebreaker Ulla Rinman, Qureshi and his crew harvest icebergs along the islands’ rocky coasts and process them in Longyearbyen, Norway, the northernmost human settlement in the world. Like his competitors, Qureshi travels the globe selling his product. Svalbarði proudly names itself the third-most-expensive water in the world at $166 a liter, a small price to pay for “pre-industrial” purity. For the sake of research, I bought a bottle and drank it with my mother, a trained sommelier. Svalbarði, after all, is meant to be consumed like a fine wine on special occasions. “Velvety smooth,” read my mother’s tasting notes. For most iceberg consumers, though, the resource is not an epicurean product, and certainly not one for which they are willing to pay. Locals across the Canadian island of Newfoundland regularly head out in motorboats to catch ice for their own use. In Brigus, a sleepy fishing community, I saw an iceberg (technically a “growler” because it was fewer than two meters long) stored in a garage freezer. Its owner, if that’s the right word, chipped away at the block when he needed ice for backyard barbecues.
On the other side of “Iceberg Alley,” residents of Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, collect growlers and “bergy bits” (those under five meters) that wash up on the beach. Six hundred and eighty miles north of the Arctic Circle, the energy company Nukissiorfiit uses icebergs to supply water to the 700-odd residents of Qaanaaq, Greenland, during the long winter. While visiting the 5,000-person settlement Ilulissat—which translates to “icebergs” in Greenlandic—I participated in an iceberg harvest myself. From my perch on a flat, gray rock overhanging the water, I simply snatched a piece of ice from the cerulean waves, then let it melt in a pot, and enjoyed the result.
On the open sea, harvesting ice is dangerous work: Icebergs can slice through steel hulls and may unpredictably shatter or capsize, threatening anyone who comes near. But from a regulatory perspective, collecting icebergs is generally uncomplicated. Because they are not mentioned in any international treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Antarctic Treaty System, custom may end up dictating the rules if enough states follow the same practice. Canadian iceberg cowboys and Emirati tycoons could thus determine iceberg law for the world.
“RAND Corporation “Antarctic Icebergs as a Global Fresh Water Source” for the National Science Foundation, 1973. “Bringing icebergs to where the water is needed was suggested by John Isaacs of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in the 1950s,” Hult told the AP. “It is our job to show how practical it is.”
This is already happening on the domestic level. When Qureshi approached the governor of Svalbard to share his idea for iceberg water, the government had not yet considered the possibility of harvesting icebergs. “There were no regulations before I showed up,” he says. Working together, Qureshi explains, he and the governor decided he would steer clear of protected wildlife, keep the government informed of harvesting activities, and check back in if Svalbarði’s production increased significantly. They didn’t try to define what would constitute such an increase, Qureshi says: “Just use a commonsense approach.”
In Canada, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador is trying to more closely regulate (and profit from) iceberg collection. In 2016, it introduced an annual tax on iceberg harvesters. In response, local business owners protested, and Danny Bath, the general manager of Auk Island Winery, even threatened to discontinue his iceberg wines. Afraid of harming local businesses, the provincial government dropped the tax, but doubled the fee for a five-year license to harvest in its territorial waters. Most Canadian provinces have banned bulk water exports, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government fixes maximum annual water use from harvesting icebergs.
But that limit still gives iceberg entrepreneurs plenty of leeway, particularly for a luxury product. In its February 2019 license, for instance, the Canadian company Berg Water is capped at 1 million liters a year. For comparison, Nestlé-owned Arrowhead Water drew around 136 million liters in 2015 from California’s Strawberry Creek. Iceberg companies are also taxed by the volume of ice they harvest, but those numbers are self-reported.
For this reason, Tony Kenny, the president of Berg Water, says the industry is based on honesty. To lawfully harvest icebergs in Newfoundland, licensees must identify or mark the icebergs they intend to collect and may only harvest one at a time. So far, nobody’s really doing it. Ali Khan, the manager of the Newfoundland and Labrador Water Resource Management Division, told me these measures were introduced in preparation for a more congested future in the Arctic Ocean. He doesn’t yet know what would be considered a sufficient mark to claim an iceberg.
The license further forbids ice harvesters from collecting “within visible distance from known locations frequented by tourists.” In case the seas get really crowded, Khan said the government may eventually limit the number of annual harvesting licenses it grants. Things are murkier in Greenland. For now, the government is focused on selling licenses to collect meltwater from the ice sheet; the most recent tender closed August 1, but those interested in harvesting icebergs can approach the government for a license whenever they desire. The Greenlandic government wants to ensure that its constituents benefit from these licensing agreements, and actually requires licensees to collect a minimum amount of water, which will yield greater revenue for Greenland and leave fewer profits to melt away.
First, though, it must find willing speculators. To that end, officials have traveled the world with glossy brochures to tout the island’s abundant, frozen resource. It is unclear exactly how growth on the scale the Greenlandic government envisions would affect the environment. Some see unharvested icebergs as a wasted resource. Anja Sørensen, a special adviser in Greenland’s Ministry of Industry, Energy and Research, is one of them. “Why not use icebergs?” she asks. “They’ll just become salt water.” John Mortensen, a senior scientist at the Greenland Climate Research Centre, is more concerned. He laments the massive carbon footprint businesses leave by shipping bottles of Arctic iceberg water to wealthy consumers in Beijing, Dubai, and Los Angeles.
Iceberg companies seem aware of the potential environmental cost of their business, and the bad PR that comes with it. Svalbarði is certified carbon neutral and redirects a portion of the revenue from each bottle to support CO2-reducing projects. Qureshi contends that purchasing Svalbarði actually helps save ice. Other claims are more dubious. More than one commercial harvester told me that the oceans are not accustomed to the quickening influx of fresh water as glaciers calve more ice, so removing icebergs might help mimic closer-to-normal salinity. The Fine Water Society, a private industry group founded in 2008, insists that collecting icebergs protects the environment, because the icy masses can scrape the seafloor, harming marine environments.
It also argues that harvesting bergs will help combat global sea-level rise, a point that Kenny echoes. Mortensen stared at me, dumbfounded, when I asked about these claims. No one has conducted an environmental-impact study on large-scale iceberg harvesting, but these assertions are pretty clearly overstated. Anna Crawford, a glaciologist at the University of St. Andrews, describes the Fine Water Society’s claims as “greenwashing”—corporate spin meant to make business practices seem environmentally friendly.
Looking over Disko Bay in Ilulissat, though, it’s easy to understand why many iceberg harvesters aren’t concerned about causing environmental damage or defining legal ownership. I couldn’t even attempt to count the number of icebergs before my eyes. The nearby Sermeq Kujalleq, or Jakobshavn glacier, calves more than 11 cubic miles of icebergs each year into the Ilulissat Icefjord. If melted, those icebergs could provide enough drinking water for everyone in the United States for a year. What harm could removing a few do?
But the environmental and legal details will be important if this niche business becomes a full-fledged global industry. In an ocean filled with competing ships, who gets which iceberg? How many should one business be able to take? Large-scale collecting in Greenland, for instance, might alter locals’ access to icebergs and affect downstream harvesting in Canada. Who should have access to this resource when people across the globe lack clean drinking water? Greenland, Norway, and Canada haven’t begun to address these questions.
Maybe there’s no need. “This is a very small industry,” Kenny told me just after a trip to China, where he was promoting Berg Water. “The business is very costly to get into.” Still, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has issued more iceberg-harvesting licenses this year than ever before. Luxury berg-water companies are cropping up across the Arctic. Plans for large-scale operations are growing as well. A new German start-up, Polewater, has announced plans to tow Antarctic icebergs to places like South Africa to combat water scarcity. “We can move locations or generate drinking water in several places around the world at the same time,” its website claims, “wherever we need pure and safe water.” The question remains, however, of who is included in that “we.” As climate change melts glaciers and sends more icebergs crashing into the oceans, the iceberg-water industry is poised to boom. Iceberg harvesting is governed by honesty and common sense for now. Underneath the fancy bottles and novelty drinks, we’ll see how civilly the cold rush will unfold.”
Matthew H. Birkhold is an assistant professor of German and law at The Ohio State University, where he is currently working on a book about the cultural history of icebergs.
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