Last month I contributed a post to HistoricalClimatology.com, where I explored some of the issues emerging from my ongoing research on water scarcity and attempts to engineer abundance. Thanks to Dagomar Degroot for the opportunity to share my research.
Ice, or a lack of it, is an “icon” of anthropogenic climate change. Earlier this year, researchers reported that a rift in Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf has accelerated and could soon cause a vast iceberg to fall into the sea. After the collapse of the ice shelf, the glaciers that once sustained it will run into the sea. Glaciers like these, Mark Carey has observed, have become an “endangered species” of the Anthropocene. Yet only a few decades ago, Antarctic ice was the hero in a visionary episode of the planet’s recent “cryo-history”.
In October 1977, scientists met at Iowa State University to discuss the latest findings in the emerging field of “iceberg utilization”. Eager to promote the cause was conference co-sponsor Prince Mohammed al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who flew an iceberg weighing over two tonnes from the Portage Glacier Field near Anchorage, Alaska to Ames, Iowa for the occasion – producing at least 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 5,000km journey. One local couple, who brought with them plastic bags, a bucket, and an ice-pick to the iceberg’s unveiling, told the New York Times, “I don’t know what we’ll do with it – serve it in drinks, I guess. We’ll have a cocktail party”.
hese stunts amused onlookers, but they were no laughing matter for the researchers studying the possibility of towing Antarctic icebergs to arid and semi-arid climes. Iceberg utilization was a tantalizing prospect for solving one of the world’s pressing problems: global water shortages. In their controversial study The Limits to Growth, the interdisciplinary research group the Club of Rome had earlier warned that the availability of fresh water was a limit to growth that “will be reached long before the land limit becomes apparent”. Bolstering this neo-Malthusian prediction were the widely reported droughts in the Sahel, the Ukraine, and the failure of the Indian Monsoon during the early 1970s.
hese anxieties were the focus of the 1977 United Nations Conference on Water in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where fresh water was declared a “scarce asset” that demanded coordinated resource development and management. Among the options discussed to increase water supplies were so-called “complex technologies” and “non-conventional methods”, such as seawater desalination. By the late 1970s desalination was already well established in Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia was eager to replicate its neighbour’s success. Leading this mission (at least until Antarctic icebergs beckoned) was the head of the Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation: Prince Mohamed al-Faisal. He shared his vision with the Christian Science Monitor, “Over a period, we would hope to change the vegetation and climate in some coastal areas”.
The Prince’s idea was several decades in the making. The prospect of using icebergs to modify local climates and to provide endless water supplies to the world’s thirstiest regions had emerged in the decade after the Second World War. In a 1949 class at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, oceanographer John Isaacs had speculated on the subject, and later expanded on his thinking in the February 1956 issue of Science Digest. He proposed floating an Antarctic iceberg along the Humboldt Current to the coast of southern California from where it could supply water to Los Angeles.
The feasibility of such a scheme had been confirmed in 1969, when glaciologist Willy Weeks and geophysicist Bill Campbell surprised even themselves when they concluded that towing icebergs to arid lands was “within the reach of existing technology”. They based their calculations on a large tabular iceberg that was twice the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was less likely to roll in transit and more likely to be found near the Antarctic than the Arctic. The optimum routes for towing such an iceberg, they suggested, were from the Amery Ice Shelf to southwestern Australia and from the Ross Ice Shelf to the Atacama Desert.
n 1973, the National Science Foundation and the Rand Corporation sponsored a subsequent report on the feasibility of southern California for such a scheme. Antarctic icebergs could supply water for urban, industrial and agricultural demands, while helping to abate the growing thermal pollution of the industrialized region. According to their estimates, towing an iceberg from the Ross Sea to the Pacific southwest would be significantly cheaper than inter-basin water transfers and desalination. Furthermore, nuclear energy could be used, which would alleviate the need to use fossil fuels during a decade of uncertain oil supplies.
The possibility of endless water supplies was too good to ignore and the Saudi prince assembled experts from around the world to advance the field of “iceberg utilization”. His 1977 conference in Iowa attracted scientists from arid and semi-arid countries such as Egypt, Greece and Libya, as well as nations with polar territories, such as Australia, Chile and Canada. Nearly three quarters of the attendees were from the United States, most of whom were associated with the military-industrial-academic complex. They included researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tetra Tech International, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, and the Naval Weapon Centre.
The lone woman speaking at the conference was the pioneering meteorologist, Joanne Simpson from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Simpson had been director of the experimental meteorology laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and member of the Weather Modification Advisory Board. Two decades of studying the intersections of cloud physics with hurricane research informed her comparison of Antarctic icebergs to cloudseeding, as well as her study of the atmospheric impacts of iceberg utilization. Although towing an iceberg would cost more than cloudseeding, she estimated that its meltwater would more than make up for the expense. In icebergs, Simpson also saw a means to mitigate the toll of tropical hurricanes. Using an iceberg to lower the surface temperature of the ocean ahead of an advancing hurricane would help to reduce the destructive winds of the hurricane.
Simpson was well aware of the credibility gap that such endeavours faced. In 1978 she wrote, “For meteorology as a whole, public overheated controversy on weather modification gives the entire profession an image of ridiculous bumblers or even charlatans”. But the opportunity to “serve humanity” outweighed these concerns and she welcomed alternative modification methods.
Despite the promise of iceberg utilization, its potential impact on local climates became one of the many reasons why the vision did not become a reality. In Australia, for instance, enthusiastic plans for the continent’s southwest were rejected in the mid-1980s on the grounds that an iceberg “parked offshore for several years” might affect the regional climate in unexpected and unwanted ways. Peter Schwerdtfeger, the scheme’s Australian proponent, lamented that its feasibility lay not in science and technology, but in “politically and economically based decisions”. He remained confident, however, that iceberg utilisation would occur when “individual nations recognise their obligations to the more thirsty segment of mankind” and choose to exploit the Antarctic icebergs that otherwise “melt pointlessly in the Southern Ocean”. According to this logic, the failure to take advantage of the icebergs was tantamount to wasting precious water resources.
The possibility of iceberg utilization was one of many post-war technological visions. The futurism and science fiction of the atomic age urged the exploration and exploitation of new planetary frontiers such as the deep ocean and outer space. In the Cold War context, measuring, monitoring and manipulating the physical environment on a global scale had the potential to fulfil both military and peaceful ambitions. The iceberg “visioneers” were bit players in a wider debate about the Earth’s future, one that pitted the constraints of ecological limits against the possibilities of technological innovation. Just as the atom offered an inexhaustible source of cheap energy, Antarctica was a cornucopia of renewable fresh water simply awaiting the application of human ingenuity. Four decades later, we are searching for ways to keep that water well and truly locked up.
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