Over the past five years, a global roster of speculators has caught on, arriving to exploit icebergs off the coasts of Canada, Greenland, and Norway as a luxury good. A world away, the UAE Iceberg Project has announced (and delayed) plans to drag icebergs about 7,500 miles from the South Indian Ocean to parched customers in the Emirates. These entrepreneurs may be right to see an opportunity. As the world warms, the polar seas are set to fill with more and more bergs. At times, though, this “cold rush” already seems like a free-for-all, which could spell trouble in the future.
At present, the best profits in iceberg water may be found in high-end bottles. One of those is a handsome glass vessel with a bespoke wooden cap and sparkling sea-foam-green band, sold by Svalbarði. Jamal Qureshi, a former Wall Street analyst with Norwegian roots, launched Svalbarði in 2015 after a trip to the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard. Aboard the icebreaker Ulla Rinman, Qureshi and his crew harvest icebergs along the islands’ rocky coasts and process them in Longyearbyen, Norway, the northernmost human settlement in the world. Like his competitors, Qureshi travels the globe selling his product.
Svalbarði proudly names itself the third-most-expensive water in the world at $166 a liter, a small price to pay for “pre-industrial” purity. For the sake of research, I bought a bottle and drank it with my mother, a trained sommelier. Svalbarði, after all, is meant to be consumed like a fine wine on special occasions. “Velvety smooth,” read my mother’s tasting notes.
For most iceberg consumers, though, the resource is not an epicurean product, and certainly not one for which they are willing to pay. Locals across the Canadian island of Newfoundland regularly head out in motorboats to catch ice for their own use. In Brigus, a sleepy fishing community, I saw an iceberg (technically a “growler” because it was fewer than two meters long) stored in a garage freezer. Its owner, if that’s the right word, chipped away at the block when he needed ice for backyard barbecues.
On the other side of “Iceberg Alley,” residents of Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, collect growlers and “bergy bits” (those under five meters) that wash up on the beach. Six hundred and eighty miles north of the Arctic Circle, the energy company Nukissiorfiit uses icebergs to supply water to the 700-odd residents of Qaanaaq, Greenland, during the long winter. While visiting the 5,000-person settlement Ilulissat—which translates to “icebergs” in Greenlandic—I participated in an iceberg harvest myself. From my perch on a flat, gray rock overhanging the water, I simply snatched a piece of ice from the cerulean waves, then let it melt in a pot, and enjoyed the result.
On the open sea, harvesting ice is dangerous work: Icebergs can slice through steel hulls and may unpredictably shatter or capsize, threatening anyone who comes near. But from a regulatory perspective, collecting icebergs is generally uncomplicated. Because they are not mentioned in any international treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Antarctic Treaty System, custom may end up dictating the rules if enough states follow the same practice. Canadian iceberg cowboys and Emirati tycoons could thus determine iceberg law for the world.