• Plan to tow thirst-quenching icebergs to Africa is on ice

    Gareth Willmer


Speed read

  • The Ice Dream project plans to insulate icebergs and then tow them with tugboats

  • Models confirm the viability of taking Antarctic icebergs to Africa and Oman

  • Funding is being sought for real-world tests

A project conceived to solve water shortages by towing icebergs from the poles to regions such as Africa and South America is still awaiting funding to progress, despite plans to start tests two years ago.
Real-life tests for the Ice Dream project slated for 2012 or 2013 were postponed due to a lack of funding. Now the project’s developer tells SciDev.Net that funds may be available next year — from a source he did not identify — to test the idea by towing an iceberg from off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.
The man behind the ambitious scheme is French engineer and entrepreneur Georges Mougin. He picked up on the idea — first conceptualised by the US Army — of using icebergs as a fresh water source some 30 years ago. But in 2009 he teamed up with French firm Dassault Systèmes, which specialses in 3-D modelling for engineering projects.

He says the collaboration calculated that it would be theoretically possible to tow a 7 million-tonne iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands. This would take 141 days and need just one tugboat if prevailing ocean currents were harnessed, according to documents from Dassault Systèmes.
The next stage is real-world tests, which would involve placing a giant synthetic fabric ‘skirt’ around an underwater part of the iceberg to insulate it from warmer waters (see animation below). The portion of the iceberg exposed to the air would only melt very slowly, says Mougin, because its white surface reflects most of the sun’s rays.
But the project faces significant challenges, with Mougin highlighting the key obstacle as funding for the Newfoundland test.
He says projected spending for Ice Dream is confidential. But in 2011 his team estimated a budget of almost €8 million (around US$10.1 million) to transport an iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands.
Another problem, says Mougin, is that icebergs can become grounded close to shore. So in countries with shallow seas off their coasts, such as Morocco, the plan would be uneconomical.
Olav Orheim, former director of the Norwegian Polar Institute and a member of Ice Dream’s scientific committee, also notes that finding an iceberg of the ideal size is difficult. And he says that “getting the protective cover around an iceberg is itself a huge technical and economic challenge”.
Orheim believes that it would be financially viable to transport an iceberg to a developed world city with a water shortage, such as Perth in Australia. But securing funding in poorer nations would be hard, he says.
However, Jennifer Veilleux, a water resources geographer at Oregon State University, United States, says the project is “severely flawed”.
She doubts that towing icebergs would be cheaper than desalination — which is already being used in the Canary Islands — and questions the potential carbon emissions and the technical feasibility of towing icebergs over such huge distances.
Veilleux favours funnelling research funding to projects that explore how to use existing water sources more efficiently. She points to Mexico City, where there is a “huge amount of contaminated water” that, if treated, could increase water security in the area.
> Link to project details