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Iceberg theft: Researchers want to use this crazy trick to irrigate deserts


For decades, researchers wanted to green deserts by towing huge icebergs out of the Antarctic. Experts thought the plan was crazy - but good money beckoned. Some still follow the plan to this day.

The idea was to change everything: deserts would turn green, droughts conquered and the most remote corners of the earth become habitable.

Through a towering operation of enormous proportions: "The idea of ​​dragging icebergs thousands of miles across the ocean to supply desert areas with water - often greeted with a giggle since it first emerged in the 1850s - is about to become a reality." the US Oceanography Agency wrote hopefully.

That was in January 1979.

In the 1970s, American and South African researchers forged perhaps the most megalomaniacal kidnapping plans in history: They wanted to tow icebergs from Antarctica and move them as far as Australia, South Africa or Saudi Arabia.

The plan to bring fresh water to arid regions in this way never worked.

Yet some tireless prophets of alternative irrigation have not given up on him to this day.

Environmental protection through iceberg theft?

Can't you simply donate a very large water ice to overheated regions of the earth? As early as 1863, a US entrepreneur wanted to pull icebergs to India by steamboat - and hoped to be able to sell the ice there at a profit for six cents a pound. The business idea was ultimately rejected. So it came with plans, also forged in the 19th century, to drag icebergs to Chile in order to supply breweries with fresh water. Or with the idea of ​​maneuvering icebergs into the Southern Ocean to balance the Earth's temperature.

The eccentric irrigation concept came to life again and again: In 1949, for example, the US oceanographer John Isaacs proposed the hijacking of icebergs to Los Angeles with the help of the Humboldt Current. So he wanted to fight a drought that plagued the notoriously dry California again. He did not realize his project any more than the geophysicist Bill Campbell and the glacier researcher Willy Weeks, who claimed to have calculated in 1969 that the transport of an iceberg was "within the possibilities of existing technology." It was about a colossus, twice the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and a distance of 7,000 kilometers from Antarctica to Australia.

Even if it were theoretically possible - the practical effort involved in such a large-scale iceberg hijacking would be gigantic: In South Africa, for example, there have been plans for several years to drag an iceberg weighing around 123 million tons to Cape Town. The »Titanic«, which makes the dimensions clear, weighed only around 50,000 tons. Such an iceberg would be around 250 meters high, 500 meters wide and one kilometer long. The technical effort would be correspondingly immense: the South African research team is planning a 20,000-horsepower super tanker and three additional powerful tugs for the towing operation.

The fact that the daring plan to hook an iceberg has not lost any of its attractiveness for so long is probably also due to the enormous benefit if it succeeds: Many extremely dry regions, for example in Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula or in Australia are hardly habitable - or only with the help of seawater desalination plants, which consume a lot of energy and cause environmental problems.

"It would be great if it could"

At the same time, around 70 percent of the world's freshwater lies around unused: as ice, especially in the Antarctic.

Every year more fresh water is released there in the form of icebergs than the worldwide consumption of fresh water - but the mountains dissolve unused in the salt water of the sea and cause the sea level to rise.

Researchers warn, however, that stealing icebergs would change the salt and iron content in the Southern Ocean, with unforeseeable consequences for the ecosystem.

At the same time, a large iceberg pulled to a dry place and anchored off the coast to be dismantled would probably cause damage to marine organisms there too, as large amounts of freshwater would melt into the seawater.

Above all, however, is the question of whether and how something like this would be feasible at all.

Deirdre Greene-Lono doesn't believe in it - and she should know, after all, hauling icebergs is part of the daily bread of her employer, C-Core.

However, only very small, 60 to 80 meters wide, and only over very short distances.

For example, the Canadian company is protecting oil platforms from ice drifting on them.

The company spokeswoman says they are often asked whether it is not possible to drag large icebergs to distant places.

"It would be great if it worked" - but the greenhouse gas footprint of such an action alone would make it unjustifiable.

In addition, the longest train operation known to her was a gigantic logistical effort, with a duration of just 24 hours.

Icebergs for Future

In the 1970s, however, Mohammed al-Faisal wanted to drag a huge Antarctic iceberg over hundreds of kilometers - to the coast of his chronically dry homeland, Saudi Arabia. The then prince founded the international research group "Icebergs for the Future" and financed specialist congresses on the subject. For a conference at Iowa State University in October 1977, he had a tiny iceberg weighing two tons flown in - which grateful participants worked on with ice picks on site and took away as a cocktail ice cream.

The glaciologist Peter Wadhams from Cambridge University was then part of the research staff.

In 2018, in the BBC interview, he recalled how al-Faisal had asked her if icebergs could be brought to Saudi Arabia: “Of course the obvious answer is 'no', because you have to drag them across the equator, and they do melt. ”But no one said al-Faisal,“ because he had a lot of money to invest ”.

Eventually the project was stopped in the early 1980s.

The scientists involved had originally thought the plan was nonsense, but then caught fire, according to Waldhams: "We continued to work on it without getting any significant money for it."

Polar bears under palm trees

A good quarter of a century later: crowds of onlookers have gathered on the beach of Fujairah between palm trees and look out in amazement at the sea. Outside, a huge tugboat has just finished its journey - it has pulled a 40 million ton iceberg from the island of Heard around 1500 north of East Antarctica to the east coast of the United Arab Emirates. Now the Arabs are welcoming new neighbors who have come on the back of the iceberg: a flock of penguins and polar bears, some of whom have already swam to the beach.

It is a promotional video from 2017. The animation is behind the National Advisor Bureau. The company has developed special metal belts for hauling icebergs and wants to solve the threat of a drying up of the groundwater supply in the United Arab Emirates within ten years - by an ice giant from the Australian outer territory.

Managing Director Abdulla al-Shehi had previously made a name for himself in the Emirates with a mobile car wash service. He cares about Waldham's criticism that his plan is "on the outer edge of the realistic", apparently as little as the question of whether polar bears even live in Antarctica (they live in the polar region at the North Pole). According to al-Shehi in 2019, the idea was "part of a broader vision to transform the desert of the 'Empty Quarter' (...) into a green space." How he wants to transform the Rub al-Chali, the Arabic name of the world's largest sandy desert, he sketched in 2015 - in a book on "Green Jihad" ("Filling the Empty Quarter: Declaring a Green Jihad On the Desert") ).

However, the holy war against the sand is still a long time coming: the project, which is expected to cost 100 to 150 million US dollars, was announced for 2019, then postponed to 2020.

When asked about the status quo, the company did not respond - apparently the operation is still on, well, on hold.

The mountain is coming!

The Arab dream of ice-cold freshwater imports has so far failed, as has the plans forged around 2010 to drag a seven million ton iceberg from Newfoundland to Tenerife with the help of 3D models, satellite monitoring and a 6000 hp oil rig tug.

Or South Africa's plan to pull an iceberg weighing a good 100 million tons as far as Cape Town with specialists from the “Costa Concordia” recovery.

Or like the fantasies that have flourished since the 1960s of greening the Australian desert with Antarctic ice.

After all: In a certain sense, the Australians were iceberg pioneers.

At the beginning of 1978 there were reports in the Australian media that the businessman and adventurer Dick Smith was towing a capital iceberg with his ship "Dickenberg One" to Sydney.

For months, newspapers, radio and television followed the seeming progress of the sensational transport.

Finally the time had come: residents of Sydney gathered at the harbor to attend the historic event despite the pouring rain.

For 10 cents, Smith had promised, everyone should be able to buy an ice cube from the mountain as a souvenir.

But when the mountain came swimming nearer, some expression must be frozen.

It was white, yes, but not that huge - and mostly made of shaving foam, as it turned out when the protective tarpaulin was lifted.

It was April 1st.

Smith had fooled the nation with the dream of the iceberg.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2021-06-22

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