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Big ideas, cool customers

A Berlin startup plans to tow Antarctic icebergs to drought-stricken countries to provide drinking water. Crazy? Yet it might work

The logistics of moving icebergs are complicated, but towing a giant lump of frozen water weighing thousands of tonnes is not impossible. There can be snags, though: the colossus might start to sweat on the way, or roll over and trigger small tsunamis. And there’s the challenge of mooring an immense ice cube at its destination, so it doesn’t just float away.

Timm Schwarzer, a 43-year-old entrepreneur from Berlin, has racked his brains for solutions to these problems since a trip through China, when the locals kept begging him for drinking water, rather than money. “People having to beg for clean water?” he remembers. “I was stunned. How can that be?”

Some 2 billion people in the world have no access to clean water. Yet the planet has vast reserves of fresh water and two of the biggest and purest of these lie in the deep freeze around the north and south poles. Icebergs that can be bigger than London break off from the Antarctic ice shelf every year and drift away gently on the circumpolar current into warmer climes until the icebergs fragment into chunks that finally melt away into the ocean.

What a tremendous waste, thought Schwarzer, who wondered whether there was some way to bring the icebergs to thirsty people. Seven years later, on a hot August morning, he was presenting his proposal in the conference room of an engineering firm in the port of Hamburg. He had brought along his business partners in the newly formed Polewater company, Heiner Schwer and Andreas Gagneur. Their aim: to harness drifting icebergs for drinking water.

Schwer calculates that in theory the entire global demand for drinking water could be met 300 times over from the icebergs of the Antarctic Ocean. Even quite a small iceberg may contain 4bn litres of pure drinking water. Taking the United Nations assessment of a minimum requirement of 25 litres per person a day, just one of the blocks of ice Polewater hopes to handle could quench the thirst of 160 million people. “Technically, we have reached the point where we can start on the preparatory stage,” says Schwarzer. “In two years at most, Polewater will be in a position to systematically use ‘table’ icebergs for obtaining drinking water. In the following years we could carry out several transports a year. The number would depend on the demand for water.”

Event manager Heiner Schwer
Event manager Heiner Schwer
Engineer Andreas Gagneur
Engineer Andreas Gagneur
Communications consultant Timm Schwarzer
Communications consultant Timm Schwarzer

Their firm Polewater plans to transport the vast quantities of drinking water trapped in icebergs to places where it is needed.

What may sound incredibly audacious is neither far-fetched nor particularly new. According to the Atlantic magazine, British researchers were conjuring up fantasies in the 1830s about diverting these ice giants in order to cool their colonies. By the mid-1800s breweries in Chile had reportedly towed icebergs from Laguna San Raffael to Valparaiso. Since then the phenomenon has cropped up in research like icebergs in the Northeast Passage. In the 1970s, the Rand Corporation thinktank devoted a comprehensive feasibility study to the potential of fixing a towline to an iceberg and US researchers held a conference on the subject. A French engineer, Georges Mougin, developed concrete scenarios for towing icebergs, commissioned by Iceberg Transport International, a company belonging to the Saudi prince Mohammed Al Faisal. However, it is not known whether the company ever made it anywhere near an iceberg. 

Thirsty city

The idea was revived again earlier this year when Cape Town’s 4 million inhabitants suffered a critical water shortage after a long drought. The South African maritime salvage expert Nicholas Sloane suggested transporting a 100m-tonne iceberg from the Antarctic. It would be enough, he calculated, to supply the thirsty city with 150m litres of water every day for a whole year. “My plan may sound crazy,” he said, “but if you examine it in detail you can see it is definitely not.” After all, Sloane was a highly respected salvage master who four years previously had refloated and towed away the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia in the Mediterranean – the most complex such operation ever. So why not put a towline around an iceberg?

Despite the credentials of those proposing the plans, none of the ambitious ideas ever made it beyond the conceptual stage. In Cape Town, the rains came before Sloane could get his tugs in position. The other plans were halted by the enormous costs or the difficulty of locating suitable bergs, because radar devices cannot reliably pinpoint a seven metre-tall iceberg once waves are over a metre high. And then there’s the question of where and how the drinking water could actually be extracted. Ice taken from near the Antarctic Circle would require enormous amounts of energy to melt and transport – a problem the authors of the Rand study wanted to solve with floating nuclear reactors. But towed to the coasts of Australia, South Africa or other dry zones, millions of litres of water would still have to be released from a floating block of ice, transported overland and delivered to customers in hygienic condition.

And what would be left of a frozen block of water after it has been hauled along for weeks into the tropics at a speed of 4km an hour?

That Schwarzer of all people might find plausible answers to many of these questions seems almost as unlikely as the project itself. He is a communications consultant and project manager, who previously worked in sales for a cruise line company based in Rostock, north Germany, and organised concerts for the French DJ David Guetta. He is currently advising the Berlin Senate on constructing refugee housing at the former Tempelhof airport. Schwer is owner of an events-management agency, Crossworks Projects.

Neither of the managing partners has ever been anywhere near a polar circle, Arctic or Antarctic. As a passionate sailor, Schwer has at least tasted glacier water. How did it taste? “Well, like water.” Their qualifications for iceberg manoeuvres in some of the most turbulent waters in the world are about as low as the melting point of ice.

On the other hand, it is part of the core competence of such managers that they can get projects up and running that others consider unrealistic. But Polewater’s third man on board does know a thing or two about technology. Gagneur is a former project manager with the German oil and gas firm RWE DEA. His engineering firm Ingenion in Hamburg normally oversees the construction of offshore turbine arrays, drilling rigs and port terminals, so he is familiar with moving heavy equipment on the high seas. Polewater is a departure from his mainstream work but he enjoys what he calls “young projects” like this.

Gagneur claims to have rethought through all the phases of ice-water procurement and to have planned them more concretely than any previous iceberg mission. He puts his trust in techniques already tried elsewhere, which are available and can be chartered by Polewater at reasonable cost. This is to avoid the enormous initial investments that caused previous attempts to fail. “Anyone who wants to get on top of an iceberg must first get the costs down,” he says, launching a presentation on his laptop. The screen shows satellite pictures of the Southern Ocean. Numerous white blocks can be seen floating in the grey water and Gagneur zooms in on them: icebergs. He explains that Polewater’s ideal quarry is a flat or “tabular” iceberg, weighing about 4m tonnes and with a volume about one-and-a-half times that of the Cheops pyramid in Giza. This makes them big enough to be economically interesting but small enough to tow. Polewater has commissioned the Airbus Defence & Space satellite TerraSAR-X to search the seas south of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, for icebergs of the right size. That is where the Antarctic circumpolar current carries the broken-off blocks eastwards as they  disintegrate.

When a promising candidate has been spotted, Gagneur and his colleagues will send out a chartered ocean-going tug. At about 60 degrees latitude south – outside the Antarctic protected zone – the tug will capture the iceberg with a special 4km-long harness made of high-performance plastic fibre that loops round the ice like a lasso. At first the tug will merely speed up the natural drift of the iceberg. Only over the last stretch of the journey to South Africa will it gently deflect it northwards along the Benguela Current. After just under a month, the journey will end 20 to 30 kilometres off the coast. “Of course, South America would not be as far,” says Gagneur clicking on another slide, “but the infrastructure is not as well connected as in South Africa.”

By the time it arrives, the monster berg will probably have shrunk to half its original size. Gagneur will be waiting for it with a “water station”, a floating platform that can be taken anywhere icebergs may be exploited. Here, the Polewater technicians propose to harvest the frozen water. Up to 12,500 tonnes a day can be pumped from the meltwater lake on top of the iceberg to the station for analysis and filtering. “We are working conservatively on harvesting a maximum of 10% of the iceberg mass,” says Gagneur, “but even that would still be 400m litres of the purest drinking water.”

The engineer is particularly proud of his concept for storing and transporting the precious end product: instead of being pumped off to elaborate facilities, the fresh water will be pumped into floating water bags – elastic balloons of 50,000 tonnes capacity, once used for transporting water from Turkey to Cyprus. Thanks to the low density of fresh water, these water bags float in and are cooled by the surrounding seawater, and they can be pulled by small tugs to anywhere they are needed. Once moored inshore, the water could be simply pumped off through hosepipes. “We aim to offer 90% of our water to regions in crisis affected by water shortage,” says Schwarzer, who is in charge of marketing, “though not for free, because what costs nothing is worth nothing.”

During the harvesting phase the iceberg would be held in place by foundations like those used for offshore wind turbines. According to Gagneur, these can be planted firmly on the seabed by vacuum pressure, which spares the marine flora and fauna. This is why Thilo Maack, a Greenpeace campaigner for seas and biodiversity, considers the Polewater project “fairly unproblematic” with regards to marine biology. He believes it is unlikely that species would be endangered or habitats lost. From a climate change perspective, the effects should be negligible. At latitude 60 degrees south, the area for capturing free-floating icebergs is outside the sensitive Antarctic Circle. Polewater calculates that even if the firm were to melt three icebergs a year, the volume would only amount to 0.000000652% of the annual ice mass available.

“Technically, I could imagine that towing icebergs might work,” says Thomas Rackow, a polar expert at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. However, the rough seas in the Southern Ocean, where waves can be more than 20 metres high, could cause problems. What is more, handling a floating body weighing several thousand tonnes is not without its dangers. If giant like that turns 90 degrees, it can release as much energy as an earthquake measuring five to six on the Richter scale. It could even trigger a tsunami if it rolled over.

Aid project or luxury service

But before anything can happen, funds must be raised. Sober calculations indicate the startup needs about €60m (£53m) for the first iceberg mission. To attract backers, part of the first Polewater harvest is to be marketed in bottles as ultra-pure premium water – like top brands such as Fiji Water or Voss, which bottle their products in the South Pacific and Norway respectively and charge more than €3 a litre. But that turns an aid project for drought-stricken regions into a luxury service for high earners, supplying a beverage with a highly questionable environmental impact.

The young firm’s website recognises this, alternating between appeals to sustainability (“Invest in a project to combat global water shortage”) and blatant wellness advertising (“We do everything in our power, shirk no adventure however great, so that every drop of pure energy reaches you”). Naturally, this draws criticism. “Yet another overpriced bottle of water for those who turn up their noses at tap water,” commented the Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung. That a for-profit company such as Polewater was presenting itself as a world-changing do-gooder was “implausible”, the newspaper said.

Yet to Schwarzer, there’s no other option for his startup with Antarctic ambitions. “We have to earn money in order to be able to afford our missions.” If investors give Polewater the cold shoulder, he could imagine converting it into a non-profit iceberg hunter.

His role model is the Ocean Cleanup project set up by the young Dutchman Boyan Slat. That started five years ago as the crazy idea of a student who wanted to clear the seas of plastic waste using a kind of floating vacuum cleaner. After his Tedx talk went viral, Slat, now 24, managed to find supporters around the world and raised more than $30m (£23m). In September, the first Ocean Cleanup ship set out from San Francisco bound for the “Great Pacific garbage patch”. The waste it aims to clean up is spread over an area about four times the size of Germany. Compared with that, an iceberg would be a piece of deep-frozen cake.