$166 Water Could Dictate International Iceberg Law

High-end start-ups and far-flung tycoons are rushing to cash in on the Arctic’s frozen treasures. Regulators are struggling to keep up.

An iceberg
Stefano De Luigi / VII / Redux

I tasted my first iceberg in L’anse aux Meadows, Canada, overlooking the windswept grassland that clings to the northern tip of Newfoundland. I had ordered a martini on the rocks from the only bar in town, and it arrived at my table gently fizzing. The jagged pieces of ice swirling around the glass crackled as the millennia-old air inside escaped. It was good fun, like drinking nature’s Pop Rocks.

The restaurant where I sipped my cocktail is one of several businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador that trade on the novelty of icebergs to sell their wares. The Quidi Vidi Brewery, in St. John’s, uses 20,000-year-old iceberg water for its Iceberg, a light lager that comes in a striking cobalt bottle. Auk Island Winery blends iceberg water with wild berries to make specialty wines, and the Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corporation makes exactly what its name advertises. For my martini, the waiter told me, a cook plucked a piece of ice from the Labrador Sea while out on his Jet Ski.

Calved from ancient glaciers formed from fallen snow that compressed over centuries, icebergs contain some of the purest fresh water on Earth, with almost no minerality or pollutants. Arctic inhabitants have long made use of this resource: The Greenlandic Inuit, for instance, traditionally cut pieces from icebergs to melt in water pots during the winter and for fresh water on long summer kayak trips.

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.

This is already happening on the domestic level. When Qureshi approached the governor of Svalbard to share his idea for iceberg water, the government had not yet considered the possibility of harvesting icebergs. “There were no regulations before I showed up,” he says. Working together, Qureshi explains, he and the governor decided he would steer clear of protected wildlife, keep the government informed of harvesting activities, and check back in if Svalbarði’s production increased significantly. They didn’t try to define what would constitute such an increase, Qureshi says: “Just use a commonsense approach.”

In Canada, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador is trying to more closely regulate (and profit from) iceberg collection. In 2016, it introduced an annual tax on iceberg harvesters. In response, local business owners protested, and Danny Bath, the general manager of Auk Island Winery, even threatened to discontinue his iceberg wines. Afraid of harming local businesses, the provincial government dropped the tax, but doubled the fee for a five-year license to harvest in its territorial waters.

Most Canadian provinces have banned bulk water exports, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government fixes maximum annual water use from harvesting icebergs. But that limit still gives iceberg entrepreneurs plenty of leeway, particularly for a luxury product. In its February 2019 license, for instance, the Canadian company Berg Water is capped at 1 million liters a year. For comparison, Nestlé-owned Arrowhead Water drew around 136 million liters in 2015 from California’s Strawberry Creek. Iceberg companies are also taxed by the volume of ice they harvest, but those numbers are self-reported. For this reason, Tony Kenny, the president of Berg Water, says the industry is based on honesty.

To lawfully harvest icebergs in Newfoundland, licensees must identify or mark the icebergs they intend to collect and may only harvest one at a time. So far, nobody’s really doing it. Ali Khan, the manager of the Newfoundland and Labrador Water Resource Management Division, told me these measures were introduced in preparation for a more congested future in the Arctic Ocean. He doesn’t yet know what would be considered a sufficient mark to claim an iceberg. The license further forbids ice harvesters from collecting “within visible distance from known locations frequented by tourists.” In case the seas get really crowded, Khan said the government may eventually limit the number of annual harvesting licenses it grants.

Things are murkier in Greenland. For now, the government is focused on selling licenses to collect meltwater from the ice sheet; the most recent tender closed August 1, but those interested in harvesting icebergs can approach the government for a license whenever they desire. The Greenlandic government wants to ensure that its constituents benefit from these licensing agreements, and actually requires licensees to collect a minimum amount of water, which will yield greater revenue for Greenland and leave fewer profits to melt away. First, though, it must find willing speculators. To that end, officials have traveled the world with glossy brochures to tout the island’s abundant, frozen resource.

It is unclear exactly how growth on the scale the Greenlandic government envisions would affect the environment. Some see unharvested icebergs as a wasted resource. Anja Sørensen, a special adviser in Greenland’s Ministry of Industry, Energy and Research, is one of them. “Why not use icebergs?” she asks. “They’ll just become salt water.” John Mortensen, a senior scientist at the Greenland Climate Research Centre, is more concerned. He laments the massive carbon footprint businesses leave by shipping bottles of Arctic iceberg water to wealthy consumers in Beijing, Dubai, and Los Angeles.

Iceberg companies seem aware of the potential environmental cost of their business, and the bad PR that comes with it. Svalbarði is certified carbon neutral and redirects a portion of the revenue from each bottle to support CO2-reducing projects. Qureshi contends that purchasing Svalbarði actually helps save ice.

Other claims are more dubious. More than one commercial harvester told me that the oceans are not accustomed to the quickening influx of fresh water as glaciers calve more ice, so removing icebergs might help mimic closer-to-normal salinity. The Fine Water Society, a private industry group founded in 2008, insists that collecting icebergs protects the environment, because the icy masses can scrape the seafloor, harming marine environments. It also argues that harvesting bergs will help combat global sea-level rise, a point that Kenny echoes.

Mortensen stared at me, dumbfounded, when I asked about these claims. No one has conducted an environmental-impact study on large-scale iceberg harvesting, but these assertions are pretty clearly overstated. Anna Crawford, a glaciologist at the University of St. Andrews, describes the Fine Water Society’s claims as “greenwashing”—corporate spin meant to make business practices seem environmentally friendly.

Looking over Disko Bay in Ilulissat, though, it’s easy to understand why many iceberg harvesters aren’t concerned about causing environmental damage or defining legal ownership. I couldn’t even attempt to count the number of icebergs before my eyes. The nearby Sermeq Kujalleq, or Jakobshavn glacier, calves more than 11 cubic miles of icebergs each year into the Ilulissat Icefjord. If melted, those icebergs could provide enough drinking water for everyone in the United States for a year. What harm could removing a few do?

But the environmental and legal details will be important if this niche business becomes a full-fledged global industry. In an ocean filled with competing ships, who gets which iceberg? How many should one business be able to take? Large-scale collecting in Greenland, for instance, might alter locals’ access to icebergs and affect downstream harvesting in Canada. Who should have access to this resource when people across the globe lack clean drinking water?

Greenland, Norway, and Canada haven’t begun to address these questions. Maybe there’s no need. “This is a very small industry,” Kenny told me just after a trip to China, where he was promoting Berg Water. “The business is very costly to get into.”

Still, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has issued more iceberg-harvesting licenses this year than ever before. Luxury berg-water companies are cropping up across the Arctic. Plans for large-scale operations are growing as well. A new German start-up, Polewater, has announced plans to tow Antarctic icebergs to places like South Africa to combat water scarcity. “We can move locations or generate drinking water in several places around the world at the same time,” its website claims, “wherever we need pure and safe water.”

The question remains, however, of who is included in that “we.” As climate change melts glaciers and sends more icebergs crashing into the oceans, the iceberg-water industry is poised to boom. Iceberg harvesting is governed by honesty and common sense for now. Underneath the fancy bottles and novelty drinks, we’ll see how civilly the cold rush will unfold.