Interest in harvesting water from icebergs is being fuelled by the world’s increasingly dire shortages of fresh water. Picture: 123RF/LISA STRACHAN
Interest in harvesting water from icebergs is being fuelled by the world’s increasingly dire shortages of fresh water. Picture: 123RF/LISA STRACHAN

Nicholas Sloane doesn’t mind discomfort. The 56-year-old SA marine-salvage master has survived two helicopter crashes and spent thousands of hours aboard ships that are burning, sinking, breaking apart, or leaking oil, chemicals, or cargo into the ocean.

Often, he gets calls in the middle of the night asking him to pack his bags and fly immediately to a disaster zone across the world, anywhere from Yemen to Papua New Guinea. Twice, he’s fought off armed pirates using water cannons, sound cannons, and strobe lights.

Usually, Sloane rooms on location, bunking in makeshift beds aboard singed or waterlogged ships he’s working to rescue. He once lived for three months with a family on Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago, orchestrating the logistics of catching and washing thousands of rockhopper penguins drenched in bunker fuel from a shipwreck. More recently, he spent two years overseeing the almost $1bn refloating of the Costa Concordia, the infamous Italian cruise ship that capsized inside a marine sanctuary off the coast of Tuscany, killing 32 passengers.

But at some point early in 2018, Sloane really wanted to take a bath and couldn’t. He was home with his family in Cape Town, which had recently declared an emergency: After three years of severe drought, the city of 4-million was at risk of becoming one of the first in the world to run out of municipal water. To forestall a shutoff, each household was permitted only 50l per day per person to cover drinking, cooking, washing, and showers.

Speed showers

“That’s enough to fill less than half a tub,” says Sloane, a soft-spoken man with graying hair, ruddy skin, and a deep crease between his green eyes. “My wife used to take a bath every night and a shower every morning. She told me ‘you’d better do something’”.  

More than a year later, disaster has been averted, thanks to badly needed rainfall and drastic reduction in water use. But conditions in Cape Town remain far from normal. The daily-use limit has been raised, but only to 70l, and people still take speed showers, collecting the runoff to use for toilet flushing. Some hotels have removed stoppers from bathtubs to keep profligate tourists in line. And farmers throughout the country are reeling.

More than 30,000 seasonal jobs have been lost in the Western Cape, and crop production has declined about 20%.

Sloane still hasn’t taken that bath at home, and he isn’t optimistic about Cape Town’s future.

“We’ll never get back to the days where water is flowing all over the Cape,” he says, pointing out that the city’s population has grown almost 40% in the last 20 years. “If the taps run dry, the first day people will be standing in lines at watering points throughout the city. The second day, if you don’t get your water, well, people are killed for that.”

That’s why he is working on a solution that might sound absurd. Making use of his unusual skillset, he plans to harness and tow an enormous Antarctic iceberg to SA and convert it into municipal water.

“To make it economically feasible, the iceberg will have to be big,” Sloane says. Ideally, it would measure about 1,000m long, 500m wide, and 250m deep, and weigh 125-million tons. “That would supply about 20% of Cape Town’s water needs for a year.”

Sloane has already assembled a team of glaciologists, oceanographers, and engineers. He’s also secured a group of financiers to fund the pioneer tow, which he calls the Southern Ice Project. The expected cost is more than $200m, much of it to be put up by two SA banks and Water Vision, a Swiss water technology and infrastructure company.

Now Sloane’s team needs an agreement with SA to buy the Antarctic water, if the plan succeeds. His team could charter the necessary ships and prepare all required materials within six months, though the mission will need to take place in November or December, when the Antarctic climate is somewhat less ferocious. “We’re taking on all the risk,” he says. “We’re ready to go.”  

Harvesting icebergs isn’t a new idea. In the mid-1800s, breweries in Chile towed small ones, sometimes outfitted with sails, from Laguna San Rafael to Valparaiso, where they were used for refrigeration. In the late 1940s, John Isaacs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began exploring more fantastical plans, such as transporting an 8-billion ton iceberg to San Diego to mitigate California droughts. In the 1960s oil companies began using thick ropes to wrangle and redirect much smaller Arctic icebergs before they collided with rigs, a practice that’s now common. If conditions are too rough, or a berg too big, the rigs sometimes need to be moved instead.

In the 1970s, the US military and the Rand Corp both looked into using Antarctic ice as a source of freshwater. At about the same time, Prince Mohammed al-Faisal began pouring funds into polar research, in hopes that his assembled team of international glaciologists and engineers would find a way to alter the drift of icebergs, potentially bringing them as far as Western Australia.

Prince Mohammed even sponsored the first international conference on iceberg utilisation for freshwater production, weather modification and other applications in, of all places, Ames, Iowa, in 1977 and had a miniberg weighing 2.4 tons trucked in from Alaska.

Eventually, Prince Mohammed stopped funding polar research, but attempts to access iceberg water continued. Today, in Newfoundland, a handful of small Canadian companies, including one called Iceberg Vodka, hire so-called iceberg cowboys, who use chainsaws, articulated claws, and even rifles to take off chunks of passing Arctic bergs, so they can be netted, melted, and used to distill premium alcohol. (Icebergs form from compacted snow, and their water is uncommonly pure.)  

More urgently, interest is being fuelled by the world’s increasingly dire shortages of fresh water. Today, as many as 2.1-billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organisation, and the UN says global water demand will outstrip supply by 40% as soon as 2030.

The problem is the result of poor government oversight, fracking, pollution, and failing infrastructure. Even in the US, leaks and theft account for an estimated loss of 16% of fresh water, writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. In Brazil and other places, the loss is as high as 40%.

There’s no magic fix. Desalination is a poor solution. It’s expensive and energy-intensive and produces more chemical-laced brine than potable water. Much of that brine, which is extra-salty and contains potentially harmful substances necessary for the desalination process, including copper and chlorine, is pumped back into the ocean. There, its density causes it to sink to the ocean floor, where it depletes oxygen and destroys marine life.

According to a 2019 UN report, global desalination plants already produce 51.8-billion cubic metres of brine annually, enough to cover the entire state of Florida 30cm deep. In 2018 a study of almost 180,000 people in Israel linked desalinated water to a 6% to 10% increase in heart disease. Plus, it tastes terrible.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Antarctic icebergs melt into the ocean each year. They range from merely large to country-size (the biggest seen recently was the size of Jamaica), and by some calculations they contain more than the annual global consumption of fresh water. Rather than let that water slip away, several groups are vying for berg-towing funds and know-how.

The EU in 2010 received a proposal to pull icebergs from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands, which have long been short on fresh water; and the United Arab Emirates plans to test its prospects of importing icebergs by bringing one from the Antarctic to Australia or Cape Town by late 2020.

In Germany, a company called Polewater Gmbh says it has spent $2.8m over the past six years hiring experts to complete a strategy for getting Antarctic iceberg water to drought-stricken areas, with an emphasis on minimising environmental impact. Having won the blessing of some Greenpeace officials, Polewater says it needs $67m to build the company over the next three years.

But when it comes to towing a 100-million ton iceberg through the notoriously rough Antarctic Ocean, where swells regularly reach 15m, investors are betting on Sloane.

“I was the greatest sceptic around,” says Bert Mulder, chief operating officer of Water Vision, Sloane’s Swiss backer. “Then I started to listen to Nick Sloane. If anybody can do it, it’s him. I truly believe that.”

I was the greatest sceptic around, then I started to listen to Nick Sloane. If anybody can do it, it’s him. I truly believe that
Bert Mulder

Sloane was born in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, and grew up exploring rivers and lakes. At about 10 he moved with his family to a town outside Durban where he began sailing and found he loved ocean racing in stormy weather, particularly because daring counted for more than tactics alone. After high school, he completed his national service with the merchant marine, then spent 10 years becoming a master mariner, running tankers and cargo ships and towing oil rigs.

From there, he stumbled into the high-intensity work of marine salvage, where successful teams are rewarded with payouts of 7.5% to 10% of the distressed ship’s assessed value, a fee that often reaches millions of dollars.

Today, Sloane spends roughly six months of the year in Cape Town with his wife and three chldren. But he’s always on call for his employer, Resolve Marine Group, a global salvage company based in Florida.

The iceberg is Sloane’s side project, and he has enlisted perhaps the biggest names in the game. The first is Georges Mougin, the French engineer whom Prince Mohammed tapped as CEO of his company, Iceberg Towing International. Now 91 years old with bushy eyebrows — but still sharp and a dapper dresser — Mougin has spent much of the past four decades exploring the technologies and materials to be used for iceberg transport. The second is Olav Orheim, trim and energetic at 77, who served as director of the Norwegian Polar Institute from 1993 to 2005.

Together with oceanographers and engineers from Norwegian and SA universities and from government-affiliated institutes such as the CSIR, Sloane’s team began forging a plan and soon attracted media coverage. “Unfortunately, the first article came out on April 1,” Sloane says. “People still think it’s an April Fools’ joke.”

The team is focused only on Antarctic icebergs, which break off from the giant sea shelf that extends from the southern continent’s landmass.

Using satellite data, they will identify an iceberg that is the right size and shape and on a course for Gough Island, a tiny landmass halfway between Antarctica and Cape Town—about 2,574km from Sloane’s final destination.

Next, they will inspect the iceberg on location, using sonar and radar scans to determine its precise dimensions and check for structural flaws. If everything looks good, the team will employ two tugboats to encircle the berg in a gigantic net fashioned from Dyneema, a supermaterial that, unlike metal cables, is neutrally buoyant and also stronger and better suited for low temperatures, friction, and tension. Costing about $25m, the net will extend about 3.2km across and 18m high. It will act as a kind of belt around the belly of the iceberg, which could reach more than 70 stories below the surface of the ocean.

All this will be done amid high waves and winds reaching 130km/h. “It’s the worst part of the ocean worldwide,” Sloane says. “People don’t go there unless they have to.”

With the net in place, the iceberg will be attached to two supertankers. The tankers will move at about 1.6km/h. Because they will have little ability to steer at such low speeds, each tanker will be led by tugboat. The operation will need to be insured by Lloyd’s of London in case the iceberg breaks apart en route, leaving dangerous debris in the path of other ships. The goal will be to follow the Antarctic circumpolar current eastward and then, at the right moment near Gough Island, deploy full force to switch over to the Benguela current, which will bring the iceberg upward toward SA’s western coast.

The journey will take an estimated 80 to 90 days. The anticipated melt rate is about 0.05m to 0.1m per day from each side and the base, which would result in a reduction in size of about 8% by arrival.

The final destination will be northwest of Cape Town, where the iceberg will run aground and sit amid the fairly cold, slow-moving Benguela Current, about 40km from land. There, Sloane’s team will hold the berg in place with a 1,000-ton mooring system, and, like the French artist Christo, wrap the entire underwater portion in a giant, 800-ton geotextile skirt designed to reduce wave impact and inhibit further melting. The skirt, expected to cost roughly $22m, will let fresh water pass through, creating a buffer of cold water, while keeping salt water out. As the iceberg gets smaller, it will be moved closer to shore.

To harvest the water, the team will ship earthmoving equipment, including grading and milling machines, to the iceberg via barge. The machines will be used to excavate a shallow saucer, which will help speed melt to anywhere from 60-million to 150-million litres a day of an icy slurry. The slush will be pumped into a rotating fleet of grocery-grade container ships.

Back on land, the slurry will be fed into a temporary pipe system and mixed with water from municipal reservoirs. Sloane believes the iceberg could supply Cape Town for a year before it becomes unstable and breaks apart.

“Nobody’s tried this, so there are going to be unexpected discoveries,” he says. Before even attempting the tow, the team will need a few months to perform a reduced environmental assessment for the government — reduced because Cape Town is still in crisis.

One problem may be the effect of parking a giant ice cube off Africa’s coast. “We have no idea what such a thing would do to all the atmospheric, oceanic ecosystem dynamics in the area,” says Marcello Vichi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Cape Town who is collaborating with Sloane’s team but has some reservations.

“We’d need to do a lot more research, but that’s where money comes in, and time.”

Alan Condron, who works at the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and joined the project in May, will begin modelling impacts within the next months. He also plans to model melt rates and various towing routes, as well as the carbon footprint of hauling icebergs versus desalination. But there’s a limit to what these projections can achieve, he says. “At some point, you can throw all the modelling you have at it, but you just need someone to go out and do it.”

The price of delivering Antarctic water will be perhaps the biggest obstacle. Sloane says it would cost Cape Town about three times what it now pays for delivery of surface water. Critics within the Cape Town government say it would cost substantially more.

“This proposal was not considered suitable for Cape Town,” says Xanthea Limberg, a member of the mayoral committee for water and waste services. “Such a project is both complex and risky with an anticipated very high water cost. The greatest challenges pertained to containment and transportation of the melt water as well as its injection into the water supply system.”

Other officials say the world’s worsening water crisis, along with SA’s booming population and the local impact of climate change, require looking beyond traditional water sources.

“We do not have the luxury to discard options,” says Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of SA’s Water Research Commission, a nonprofit funded by the country’s water tax. “An iceberg is 99% pure water, and you have the prospect of that sitting on your doorstep in a giant chunk that you can tap into. It’s a terrific idea.”

Time is running out for SA to order an iceberg for delivery in 2019.

Sloane has put more than $100,000 of his own money into the Southern Ice Project. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I probably would have said this was crazy, but now the time is right,” he says, sitting in the lounge at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel, where he is staying.

Cape Town, he points out, is by far the most conveniently located city for a pioneer tow, given its relative proximity to Antarctica and the path of the Benguela current, but he believes icebergs may eventually be pulled to Perth, Australia, and Santiago, Chile. “And if you can get it to Cape Town, you can get it to Namibia and maybe as far as Angola.”

For now, Sloane is focused on his continent, where cities and towns across several nations are running dry. “I promise you, the water situation in some parts of Africa is getting worse all the time. It’s certainly not getting better,” he says. “Twenty or 30 years from now, I think towing icebergs will be a regular thing.”

© Bloomberg