Could a Tugboat Pulling an Iceberg Solve the World's Water Problems? French Engineer Says "Yes!" (Video)

dragging iceberg image

Image via Video Screengrab

In perhaps one of the most unusual ideas for bringing fresh water to people in parched areas, French engineer Georges Mougin is convinced that pulling icebergs from Greenland across the oceans to drought-stricken areas is a possible, and practical, solution. Others, including this writer, might have reservations. Fast Company reports that since 1977, Mougin has tried to prove that rather than letting icebergs melt away into the ocean, they could be pulled to areas that need the fresh drinking water. By selecting an iceberg from Greenland of the right shape and size, specialized equipment can be used to tug it to another location, such as Arabia.

First, the iceberg is selected and circled by a "belt":

A "skirt" is then dropped from the belt which effectively nets the iceberg:

And finally, the iceberg is pulled by a tug boat to which ever location it is needed:

Is it possible? Well, some certainly think so. Mougin has been working with French design firm, Dassault Systèmes, to use 3D simulations and modeling to create real-world scenarios, including fuel supply, the melt rate of the berg, ocean currents and other weather conditions the tugboat and attached berg may encounter on their journey. They figure that by selecting an iceberg of the right size and shape -- not too big to pull but not too small that it melts quickly, and nice and flat on the top to minimize drag -- then it would make sense to pull it to a location where the water is needed. Theoretically, anyway.

Fast Company reports, "Emboldened by the successful Dassault Systèmes simulation, Mougin is forging ahead with a plan to implement his dream in the real world--he announced a new company to the French press recently. The cost of iceberg transport have not been made public yet, but pilot programs--initially just try to tow a mini-iceberg a short distance, says Simard--are underway. And there is talk, at least, of a real-world trial in 2012 or 2013."

The problems of course are many. First, if we can assume for a moment that the project works, how would the water be distributed to those who need it? Coastal communities would be the ones benefiting from an iceberg pulling up to the docks. Considering the price and fuel consumption of this iceberg-fresh water, those coastal communities would be better off building desalination plants. And the farther inland the water goes, the more it would likely cost because of the fuel consumption of trucks. The carbon footprint of this water would be enormous.

Another issue I'd be curious to find out more about is how a massive hunk of ice might affect marine animals whose ecosystems this thing passes through. How would removing icebergs from arctic and antarctic areas affect the ecosystems that are already struggling with too little ice thanks to warming global temperatures, and which are evolved to deal with changes in ocean salinity as ice melts? There are more questions here than simply "Can it be done" and "Will it give humans water." Hauling icebergs seems even sillier than the notion of shipping water from Alaska to India.

It seems that providing fresh water to those who need it could be accomplished in more practical ways than hauling icebergs. From dew-catchers to rain catchment, to innovations for more effective agricultural irrigation and for purifying drinking water, we aren't short on ideas for dealing with drinking water. Iceberg hauls should likely stay low on our list for solutions.

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