There's something about the idea of towing an iceberg from sea to sea that appeals to one's inner mad scientist (or rather, mad engineer). Most recently, entrepreneur Georges Mougin made news by backing up such a plan—to transport icebergs to drought-stricken regions as a source of freshwater—with digital technology.
A team of engineers from software company Dassault Systemes created a computer simulation for Mougin. According to their results, a tugboat could take a seven-million-ton berg, wrapped in an insulating skirt, from Newfoundland, Canada, to the Canary Islands, which currently use desalinization to deal with their periodic water shortages, for about $9.8 million. The 5,500-kilometer journey, during which the iceberg would lose about 38 percent of its mass, would last four to five months.
Although the computer simulation shows how it would be possible to transport an iceberg without it melting away entirely, Mougin's plan is not the most financially accessible solution for relieving drought in areas such as Texas or Somalia: After the mass loss, his simulation produces 4.3 million tons of iceberg at a cost of almost $10 million, which comes to about 23 percent of a single cent per liter. This may sound low, but compare it to the common method of desalinizing seawater, which yields a liter of freshwater for nine percent of a cent.
Desalinized seawater costs less than half as much as melted iceberg water, and the price continues to drop as research uncovers new techniques for desalination. One method under development drags the cost of a liter of potable water down to 4.6 percent of a cent.
These new numbers do prove that the price of iceberg hauling may be lower than Iceberg Transport International, a company that Mougin and Saudi prince Mohammed al Faisal founded in 1975, originally estimated. At the 1977 International Conference on Iceberg Utilization, held in landlocked Ames, Iowa, the company suggested a more ambitious arrangement than the modern plan: using multiple tugboats to drag an Antarctic berg of 100 million tons, insulated in sailcloth and plastic, to the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, their estimates suggested the 11,500-kilometer journey would cost $100 million. Given the size of the target iceberg, that price in modern dollars would have yielded water for about 38 percent of a cent per liter, after adjusting for inflation. Iceberg Transport International suggested that the method would be cost effective compared to the price of desalinization, as long as the iceberg only lost 20 percent of its mass on the way to Saudi Arabia. (Since then, desalinization technology has improved in technique and cost.)
At the time, however, other scientists at the conference raised serious criticisms. Some thought the berg would melt away entirely near the equator, or that its presence in the dry Middle East would cause unpredictable environmental problems. Although Mougin's simulation disproves the idea that the iceberg would entirely melt, and the FAQ on Dassault Systemes's web site pooh-poohs the idea that a small iceberg in a big sea would have much environmental impact, it's crystal clear: Iceberg hauling is romantic, but it's not the most cost-effective solution for water shortages.
Furthermore, the simulation did not seem to estimate the carbon footprint that a 5,500-kilometer journey would leave via a tugboat transport run on diesel. Water desalinization can occur closer to the drought area, thus requiring less transportation.
Despite the flaws in his method, Mougin has suggested a real-life project to push around a 30-million-ton iceberg. Presumably, a larger berg would require even larger bills due to additional fuel costs and impacts. In addition, a berg four times heavier than the one in the simulation may have a different melting rate.
The media coverage notwithstanding, the current iceberg-towing plan will not bring bergs any closer to easing the drought in impoverished Somalia without a wealthy benefactor's involvement. If the Texan drought, however, becomes too much for a generous oil millionaire, Mougin's suggestion might be plausible. Maybe the philanthropist could order some iceberg ice for a party, like Faisal did back in 1977. At the conference, he had a mini-berg shipped from Alaska to Ames via helicopter, plane and truck. For the price tag of $5,000, an austere symbol of nature's majesty was chipped off the old block to float atop cool drinks in Iowa.
Image credit: David Demer, NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC/AMLR