Nicholas Sloane to tow Antarctic iceberg to S. Africa to deal with water shortage

Nearly the entire scientific community agrees that more and more ice is melting in the polar regions due to climate change. There is a small minority who choose to deny overwhelming evidence pointing to melting ice at the poles. Unfortunately, some people holding high government offices are among that minuscule minority.

The powerful naysayers make it difficult to progress in stemming the tide of greenhouse gasses. The situation is dire, especially for future generations. While it’s not a silver bullet by any stretch of the imagination, a South African marine salvager has proposed an idea to at least put the ice to good use.

Nicholas Sloane is something of a swashbuckler. He has battled armed pirates, rescued penguins soaked in fuel, and helped to salvage the Costa Concordia (the Italian cruise ship that capsized off the western coast of Italy), according to a profile in Bloomberg Businessweek. Recently, his intrepid spirit has led him to propose an interesting idea: tow a giant iceberg from Antarctica to South Africa.

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Why Does South Africa Need an Iceberg?

South Africa has experienced three years of drought in the past four years. While the drought has subsided somewhat in the last year, residents of Cape Town are still on a 70 liter per day, per person ration. That’s an increase from a 50-liter ration during the drought. Fifty liters is less than half a bathtub of water. A bath is what got the wheels turning for Sloane…his wife used to take one every night.

“You’d better do something,” Sloane’s wife told him. So he began plotting his icy heist. Towing icebergs is not a new idea, wrangling small ones for refrigeration purposes dates back to the mid-1800s. Oil companies also lasso and tow icebergs to prevent them from damaging oil rigs. But the berg Sloane is proposing to grab weighs 125 million tons.

The Logistics

The logistics of moving such a massive frozen block is where the plan gets problematic. First, it’s going to cost a pretty penny, about $200 million. Second, towing an iceberg of that size is perilous. As the glacial mass melts, it could break apart, or worse, flip over. That would put the supertankers and tugboats Sloane proposes to tow the iceberg in danger. Third, the ocean in that area is notoriously rough.

Sloane has put together a crack team made up of glaciologists, engineers, oceanographers, and investors to accomplish his goal. Dubbed the Southern Ice Project, the plan is to use satellite imaging as well as radar and sonar to find an iceberg of suitable size, shape, and structural integrity.

The tugboats will then encompass the ‘berg in a huge net with five-inch diameter cables made from Dyneema. The super material is neutrally buoyant and ideal for low temperatures, tension, and friction.

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The tugboats will attach the net to two supertankers and then help out with the towing. The iceberg’s guides will make for the Antarctic Circumpolar Current heading east. Then, they will link up with the Benguela Current, which will take them northwards to South Africa.

When they get close to shore, the ‘berg will chill out about 25 miles off the coast. Earthmoving equipment will arrive at the iceberg via barge. The excavators will carve out a crater, which will speed melt rate and create an icy slurry. The slurry will then pump onto container ships. The ships will bring the water to land, where it will enter municipal reservoirs.

What are the Obstacles?

The Southern Ice Project hinges on approval from the South African government. The main obstacle is a monetary one. It will cost Cape Town about three times more to tow and transport the water from an iceberg than what it pays for sourcing surface water.

A great deal of research also needs to happen to try and understand how a giant iceberg off the coast would affect the ecosystem. But all water sourcing methods need consideration, according to Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of South Africa’s Water Research Commission. “We do not have the luxury to discard options,” he said.

Desalination is another one of those options. But it is also expensive and creates a briny byproduct that is harmful to the environment. Furthermore, the water produced by desalination tastes terrible, and researchers have linked it to heart disease.

Water from an iceberg, however, is crystal clean. Despite the obstacles, Sloane is optimistic that towing the giant ice blocks will become the norm. “20 or 30 years from now, I think towing icebergs will be a regular thing,” he said.

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