Could We Actually Tow an Iceberg to Make Drinking Water?
Anthony Fordham
at 11:06 AM Jun 23 2014
Could We Actually Tow an Iceberg to Make Drinking Water?
Probably looked better with the foam on it.
Sydney Morning Herald
Make // 

Recent examination of our Google Analytics has shown a surprising number of people searching for "tow iceberg drinking water" or similar. And they're tapping into a core problem with this planet: most of the people live in the middle latitudes, and most of the fresh water is locked up in the poles. So all we need to do is tow an iceberg into a friendly port and harvest the sweet, penguin-scented water within right? Dick Smith famously created a fake iceberg on 1 April 2020, but others continue to give the idea serious thought.

First, the Dick Smith story. The millionaire eletronics and Aussie-made-food mogul had long insisted his plan to tow an iceberg from Antarctica was a real solution to Australia's ongoing water supply challenges (especially for Adelaide). But people told him it was impossible.

So in 1978 Dick Smith and a gang of co-conspirators built a fake iceberg in Balmain out of a barge, a bunch of plastic sheeting, and a whole lot of firefighting foam to show those critics that... uh... moving on. They towed the fake berg out into the harbour in very early morning of April Fools Day, while 300 of Dick Smith's employees excitedly phoned radio stations about the "iceberg" in the harbour.

Under grey Sydney skies, the illusion worked reasonably well... until the rain set it and washed away the foam. Later, Dick Smith said he didn't care, since the publicity the prank generated was more than worth the $1200 or $1450 he spent on it (the exact amount differs depending on the source.) The Museum of Hoaxes has a more detailed account, as does this ancient SMH article.

But Dick Smith was no visionary when it came to towing icebergs - in fact, on the VERY SAME DAY Dick Smith ran his prank - April 1 1978 - the California legislature endorsed a plan to tow a couple of icebergs from Antarctica.

Indeed the idea of berg towing dates back to at least the early 19th Century and perhaps earlier, since in an 1825 edition of the Literary Magnet (a sort of rambling set of essays on the state of British civilisation or something), there's a somewhat snarky reference to the "old project of towing icebergs into the southern ocean, for the purpose of equalising the temperature of the Earth".

And for much of the 19th century, breweries towed small icebergs up the coast of Chile for use in refrigeration.

Iceberg drinking water proponents say these historical uses don't count because the scale is small and the ice was used as ice - for keeping things cool. It wasn't until 1949 that the idea of melting bergs down and drinking them was suggested by John D Isaacs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The idea was considered fanciful until someone realised that oil rig companies were already towing icebergs around to protect rigs in the Labrador Sea. So surely it was just a matter of extending the technology...

Which is when things started to get a bit eccentric. In the second half of the 20th century, the RAND corporation threw around terms like "iceberg train", and then the Saudi royals got in on the idea. Conferences were held, people talked about icebergs a lot, and in the late 1970s - at the same time as Dick Smith was pumping firefighting foam onto a barge in Balmain - ice-berg towing mania reached its peak.

Or maybe the peak was in 1979, when NASA got in on the act, suggesting it would be feasible to track icebergs from space. From space.

Today, serious work on a berg-towing project is still be done by French engineer Georges Mougin and Dassault Systems. It was he who helped the Saudis with their plans in the 1970s, and today he continues to run ever-more complex computer simulations of how an iceberg could be towed. Skirts, currents, melt-rates, optimal speeds, it all goes into a bunch of very impressive animations. Trials were supposed to take place in 2012 and 2013 but... well, you can still watch the "scientific documentary".

Is the dream of towing an iceberg to give the deserts fresh drinking water still alive? If your recent Google search history is anything to go by, then absolutely. Check out this excellent timeline of maniac iceberg towing schemes at The Atlantic.

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