The Many Failures and Few Successes of Zany Iceberg Towing Schemes

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Every few years for the past couple centuries, even before the large-scale cultivation of marijuana, this idea occurs to someone: What if we towed an iceberg from the poles, where there are no people, to some dry, populous place and then melted it into freshwater?

In some cases, that person has ginned up a company to try to make it happen. In others, they've written reports for the RAND Corporation or turned the idea into the basis for a thriller mass market paperback. 

Long-distance iceberg towing is one of those ideas that will not die but never really springs to life either. It exists in a kind of technological purgatory, dressed up in whatever technology is fashionable during an epoch and resold to a happily gullible media. 

This happened again this week when Georges Mougin told the world that newfangled computer models just happened to confirm what he'd long thought: that icebergs could be transported economically to Africa. Here, we look back at the many failures and successes (there are some!) of towing icebergs from the early 19th century to today.

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1825: Tucked in among various environmental schemes including one plan for "conveying by means of pipes and air-pumps, the sea breeze to London," we find this early 19th century author deriding "the old project of towing icebergs into the southern ocean, for the purpose of equalising the temperature of the earth." Now, that's some ambition. Where's that spirit gone in modern times?

1835: It's not just ships that tow icebergs, but the opposite can happen, too. A British expedition in the Arctic got stuck on an iceberg, which proceeded to get blown around the ocean.

It was perhaps the first time that an iceberg had the honor conferred upon it of towing a British ship, although we know that the direct contrary was once in contemplation, of towing the icebergs by British ships to the tropics, for the purpose of diffusing their refrigerating power on the countries situated between them.

Mid 1800s: According to the Encyclopedia of Antarticasmall icebergs were towed from southern Chile up to Valparaiso as part of the brewery supply chain. A Chilean researcher said, "The icebergs were towed by ships of the conventional type. Sometimes the icebergs were supplied with sails to utilize the prevailing winds. The ice was used for refrigerating purposes in the breweries and was generally substituted for artificial ice." Apparently, the business continued until about the turn of the century.

August 22, 1863: Scientific American informs us of not one, but two, different schemes in one short article. "A genius in New Bedford is fitting up a steamer for the purpose of towing icebergs to India, where they sell for six cents a pound," the magazine wrote. "Another proposes to do still better--to fit a screw in the iceberg itself, and thus avoid the expense of ship-building. Cute chaps, both of 'em."

June 8, 1898: Printers Ink, an advertising rag, contains an announcement of an iceberg towing related hoax out of Colorado. The magazine reports:

The Mining and Industrial Reporter (Denver) has a little joke. In its February issue it printed the announcement of a concern called the Klondike and Cuba Ice Towing and Anti-Yellow Fever Company, supposed to be engaged in towing icebergs and collecting the gold dust believed to be in them as they melted. It was a hoax, intended as a caricature of Klondike advertisements; but the Reporter announces with glee that it received a largo number of inquiries and applications.

March 9, 1914: A short notice in The Washington Times describes a new iceberg towing operation being advertised in area papers. "The Northern Berg Ice Company is planning to tow icebergs into Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, exhibit them excursion steamers, and then dynamite the bergs into small pieces for market. No names of interested capitalists have as yet been made public, and the advertisements came as a surprise to ice dealers, who say the scheme is not practical."

Early 1940s: The British try to build a massive ship out of wood pulp and ice. They call it Project Habakkuk and it never really succeeds. 

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1949: John Isaacs (above) is the godfather of the modern iceberg towing movement. In his first seminar at Scripps Oceanographic Institute in 1949, he suggested the enterprise and expanded on his original speculations for years afterwards. I particularly like his 1956 version in which he suggested "capturing an eight-billion ton iceberg, 20 miles long, 3000 feet wide, and 1000 feet deep in the Antarctic and towing it up to San Clemente Island off San Diego in a matter of 200 days." The way Isaacs saw it, the energy required to guide the berg up two continents was a mere fraction of the energy required to desalinate it, which was itself a popular idea for the third quarter of the 20th century.  

Isaacs was considered a force of nature, at least by his biographer. He spun out many, many ideas in oceanography, although he was best known for his speculative forays into icebergology. You can read all about the man in John Isaacs and His Oceans.

1960s: Oil companies developed a successful iceberg towing technology to keep the ice away from their oil rigs in the Labrador Sea between Canada and Greenland. "It was found that a floating bridle around the berg, attached to several tugs, was feasible and safe." Smithsonian profiled one of these "iceberg wranglers" in 2003 with an appropriate sense of drama, awe, and homespunism.

To round up an iceberg, Baker uses lengths of polypropylene towropes up to 1,200 feet long. "When the rope goes out, it's eight inches thick. It's only an inch thick in places when it comes back," he says. "The rope looks like a camel's been chewing on it."

May 1973: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists asks the logical question of iceberg towing -- "Manna or Madness?" -- in a long article that looked at the "quantitative appeal" of the process, particularly from Antarctica to the Atacama Desert. The result? Icebergs are manna. "The possibility of irrigating large areas of arid land in the Southern Hemisphere is certainly desirable." And one "super tug" capable of pulling the bergs around would be able to "irrigate a square field 126 kilometers on a side." Not bad.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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