Iceberg towing: the complex past of a deceptively simple solution to water shortage

When a country is lacking in water, what is the solution? As another proposal to bring ice from Antarctica is revealed, Georgina Lavers explores the ramifications of what seems like an easy fix

The above photo was taken in September of 1976, just off the coast of Canadian province Newfoundland and Labrador.

Though the science must add up, visually it is hard to comprehend – a seemingly tiny supply boat steadily dragging an iceberg that could weigh 100,000 tonnes, away from an oil rig on the horizon.

Iceberg towing is not a new concept, as the image shows. For forty years, boats have been rerouting icebergs to avoid damage to offshore oil rigs; most recently a Russian icebreaker wrangled the biggest yet, steering the one million-tonne berg off its course of trajectory last year.

Yet any successful attempts so far have solely been to divert icebergs, rather than to carry them for long distances. It was at a 1977 conference that Daniel Zaffarano, Vice President of Iowa State University, said: “While the technical difficulties involved would seem a priori less demanding than putting an astronaut on the moon, other options for improving water supply, such as impoundment by dams, cloud seeding, and desalination have appeared to be more tractable for the present.”

Yet, the chance to provide some of the world’s most water-deprived countries with icebergs that contain extraordinary volumes of freshwater has seen countless engineers and adventurers alike desperately seek out a viable solution.

There have been various methods posited in the attempts to tow a natural, irregularly-shaped structure of such an enormous weight.

In a 1978 issue of Popular Mechanics, an image shows a long cylinder positioned underneath an iceberg; the idea is that billions of compressed air bubbles would be released from the cylinder and cause the iceberg to move. 

Georges Mougins, who first proposed long distance iceberg towing with Prince Mohammed al Faisal of Saudi Arabia (their company, Iceberg Transport International, proposed to transport a 100 million-tonne berg from Antarctica to the Arabian peninsula in the 1970s) had a different method for his next venture, in 2011.

To bring a berg to Africa, the French engineer proposed lassoing it with a textile belt, which would be 40ft wide in order to fully envelop the structure. He also suggested a careful selection of iceberg, making sure that it was as flat and tableau-like in structure as possible.

The tension between supplying countries that suffer from water shortages, or the protection of natural landscapes is an ongoing one

National Advisor Bureau Limited, headquartered in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, bills itself as a consultant to SMEs. But its managing director, Abdullah Mohammad Sulaiman Al Shehi, recently made news by describing his ambitious plans to tow an iceberg from Heard Island in the Antarctic – whose tourist board describes its surrounding seas as being “some of the roughest on the planet” – all the way to Fujairah in the UAE.

He stated that his ‘UAE Iceberg Project’ had undergone a feasibility study, with a transportation route and variables having been run through simulators.

There are obstacles to these ventures, which have so far prevented any one company from successfully towing an iceberg for an extended distance. As well as a lack of funding (most often over doubts that towing would be cheaper than desalination), companies must then address the environmental implications of moving a formation that is part of a landscape, to somewhere it does not naturally occur.

Writer Eva Holland described the Arctic, where numerous schemes to harvest ice have been posited as “so often perceived as a place from which any number of useful things can be extracted as they’re needed – a sort of geographical Room of Requirement.”

The tension between supplying countries that suffer from water shortages, or the protection of natural landscapes is an ongoing one.

For Holland and people like Jerome Chappellaz, the answer is simple. Chapellaz works at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, which is involved in creating a new ice store in the Antarctic in order to protect melting mountain glaciers.

He warned in a recent interview that: "We are probably the only scientific community whose archive is in danger of disappearing from the face of the planet.”

Still, the idea persists. As a natural resource of huge volumes of water, the iceberg is unsurpassed, and the structures have been seen to travel thousands of miles as a result of natural processes, lending feasibility to the idea that they could be towed long distances.

Emotionally, too, there is somewhat of an intangible magic for adventurers. The dream of taking a mammoth structure and putting blood, sweat and tears into rebuilding it in another place, completing a seemingly impossible feat, almost evokes similarities to Stonehenge or the Pyramids.

Despite potential carbon emissions, technical feasibility and environmental concerns, it seems difficult to imagine a time period in which this venture is forgotten.