Can icebergs solve the looming water crisis?

If all of the icebergs that naturally dissolve into the sea every year were successfully harvested into drinking water, then their output would nearly match annual global demand, according to researchers. But how feasible would it be to transport them?
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Giles Foden's most recent novel, Turbulence, begins with an improbable scene. It is January 1980 and Henry Meadows is aboard Habbakuk, a large ocean-going vessel, as it tiptoes past Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic.

Habbakuk is no ordinary ship. Rather, it is an experimental craft that pushes the boundaries of possibility. It is made almost entirely from ice hewn from the "fringed white veil" of Antarctica and bound for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where its precious cargo will eventually be reprocessed into drinking water.

This is fanciful stuff, the words of a clever fiction writer - Foden's other work includes The Last King of Scotland, the hugely popular book and film - operating at the limits of science and historical fiction. Surely though, it is nothing more than that.

Well, not exactly. There is a historical precedent. The notion of an ice ship had been envisaged a generation earlier, by Allied scientists during the Second World War, as a primitive but enormous aircraft carrier - more than 600 metres long or close to twice the length of the nuclear-powered American supercarriers of the modern era. Winston Churchill had even funded the development of three small prototypes, code-named Habbakuk (Foden knows his history, of course) and the logic appeared sound: icebergs were in plentiful supply and hardy enough to withstand persistent enemy fire. Further development stalled when funds dried up and the principal battleground of the conflict stopped being the swell of the North Atlantic.

There is a contemporary equivalent too. Indeed, 30 years later, Georges Mougin picked up the baton dropped during the Second World War. He has been running with it ever since.

Mougin, a French-Canadian engineer, has devoted his career to the notion that one could use icebergs to help supply fresh water to water-poor countries. To this end, he spent the late Seventies in the employment of Prince Mohammed Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, exploring the possibility of moving ice caps from the Antarctic to the kingdom. That project would eventually fail, like Habbakuk, when investment melted away.

Two years ago, Mougin teamed up with Dassault Systemes, a technology company with headquarters in northern France. Dassault provides three-dimensional, computer-aided design and modelling software to a range of industries. The partnership is good at both ends of the deal: Dassault, whose clients include Boeing and Nasa, gets to show that even a corporate giant can care about the future of the planet, while Mougin was finally able to test his theories in the real world of virtual reality.

The results are startling. The research team created a digital rendering of a 10-million tonne iceberg (around 100 times the size of that modern US supercarrier) and using a virtual lasso fashioned from imagined hi-tech textiles, dragged their iceberg from Canada to the Canary Islands using a high-powered tugboat. The journey took the hard drives of Dassault's computers just 20 weeks to complete and, here's the interesting bit, around 60 per cent of the ice cap survived the simulated journey.

This is interesting, in part because if all of the icebergs that naturally dissolve into the sea every year were successfully harvested into drinking water, then their output would nearly match annual global demand. A word of caution though, and that word is "if".

Furthermore, computer simulation is nothing more than that. Simply, any one of us can drive a car at 200 miles an hour using a games console in the comfort of our homes, but that does not mean we are equipped to do so on the open road.

Nevertheless, only the most uncharitable would not applaud Mougin for his persistence and Dassault for its technology. That said, it's hard to believe the numbers associated with developing a suitable supertug, harvesting the crop efficiently and then dragging it across an inhospitable ocean, will ever really stack up in the cold light of an icy Atlantic day.

Published: July 8, 2011 04:00 AM


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