26 January 2010

Waste of Fresh Water

The images of earthquake survivors fighting over scarce resources in Haiti is a grim reminder of what is to come in parts of our overpopulated planet. In addition to earthquakes, extreme weather brought on by global climate change, be it drought or floods from excessive rainfall, is causing misery and suffering to countless millions with increasing frequency. Water and food, in that order, are the most basic human needs following a natural disaster.

Yet, as thirsty, dehydrated Haitians strive to survive on the bald rock which is all that is left of their part of the once-lush, tropical island in the Caribbean, trillions of tons of fresh water from glaciers and icebergs at the polar extremities of the planet are slowly melting into the sea.

What a terrible waste!

Is there nothing that can be done to harness the water from tidewater glaciers and icebergs before they make life on our planet more precarious by expanding the size of our oceans? Are we set to passively let part of our species die of thirst or drown?

On a cruise to Antarctica earlier this month, I asked the ship’s glaciologist if that was any ongoing research on ways to harness water from icebergs in these times of mounting scarcity. He said hadn’t heard of any and could only point to the initiative of a Saudi prince, who in the mid-70s had the idea of towing a 100 million-ton iceberg wrapped in sailcloth and plastic from Antarctica to Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohamed al Faisal was convinced that despite the cost of towing the iceberg to Saudi Arabia and loosing up to 20% of the mass from melting en route, the fresh water that would be left would be much cheaper than producing it locally in a desalinization plant. Apparently, nothing came of the idea and some scientists argued that once in waters around the equator all that would be left of the berg would be the rope at the end of the tow.

I’m not convinced that we should give up on the idea. After just a few days of watching huge icebergs from the Larsen Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula like this one floating northward, I would hope that there is research going on somewhere to find ways of harnessing this immense resource. Reports this month that icebergs calved from the Mertz Glacier are drifting towards New Zealand would mean that there would be no need to tow them through equatorial waters to harvest the fresh water. Once harvested in New Zealand or at the tips of South America or South Africa, the water could be moved to drier parts of the planet using conventional methods.

If not for concern for humankind, there could be money to be made from icebergs.

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