Science: Towing Icebergs

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Cold comfort in Iowa

Calving off their mother glaciers, sliding into the water with a sound like thunder and drifting into shipping lanes, icebergs have long been regarded mainly as hazards to navigation. But the bergs may have a use, after all. For the past few years planners in the parched lands of the Middle East and South America —not to mention more than a few drought-bedeviled Californians—have been toying with ideas for towing icebergs from the Antarctic to arid areas where they could be melted for their pure, fresh water (TIME, March 7). Last week scientists from 18 nations gathered at Iowa State University, in the town of Ames, for an International Conference on Iceberg Utilization to discuss whether such plans could be put to any practical use.

Sponsored by Prince Mohammed al Faisal, a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Khalid, the conference demonstrated that there is no shortage of ideas for using icebergs to slake the world's growing thirst. Prince Faisal's own company, Iceberg Transport International, is considering a plan to find a 100 million-ton iceberg off Antarctica,* wrap it in sailcloth and plastic to slow its melting, and then use powerful tugboats to tow it to the Arabian peninsula, where it would supply enormous quantities of drinking water. The journey would take about eight months and the project would cost around $100 million, according to estimates.

But it very well might be worth it. Even if the mile-long iceberg lost as much as 20% of its mass en route, it could be melted down and its water made available at a cost of 500 to 600 a cubic meter (about 35 cu. ft.), well under the 80¢ it now costs to desalinate a cubic meter of water.

John Hult, a former Rand Corp. scientist who heads his own firm, has a similar idea. He would like to wrap an Antarctic berg, mummy-fashion, in thick plastic and haul it to Southern California. Hult, who says he could do the job for a mere $30 million, calculates that he would lose only 5% of the berg's mass during the year-long trip. He would make up some of his immense costs by bottling a portion of the iceberg water in small flasks and then selling them as souvenirs for tourists. Says he: "The American public would really go for this." Especially residents of Los Angeles, who could derive about 75 billion liters (20 billion gal.) of water, or 10% of their annual consumption, from a 100 million-ton iceberg.

Some of the scientists at the Iowa conference were less sanguine. Wilford Weeks, of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, warned would-be iceberg movers: "Once you get north of the equator, you'll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow." Other doubts were expressed. Could an iceberg be effectively insulated against melting? Would anchoring a huge block of ice off an arid coast have unexpected environmental effects?

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