Water on the Rocks

If I were an emir, I’d take a portion of the oil money and organize an expedition to the Antarctic to mine a hunk of the iceberg that broke away from the ice shelf a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t heard where that iceberg is right now, but some part of it–it’s as big as Delaware–must soon be floating in international waters where it could become fair game. 

Is water worth mining? At the high end of the market, where water is scarce,  a dollar buys about 50 gallons. An equal amount of crude oil, by comparison, costs about 50 dollars. Overhead is lower for water than for oil, however. The water is floating on the surface of the ocean, easy to recover, while the oil lies deep in the earth’s crust. The water just has to be melted to be put to use. The oil must be refined. The recovery, processing, transport and consumption of oil are polluting activities. Water, not so much. If the pipeline leaks, it’s not catastrophic.

How many tug boats would it take to tow an iceberg a thousand miles? That’s the distance from the Antarctic ice sheet where the berg broke off to any number of Southern Hemisphere ports with ready access to vast stretches of arid land. How many 747’s would you need to fly half the berg to Nevada and drop it, one piece at a time, into Lake Mead? If people were to develop a technology for moving large amounts of ice to dry land, they might become prepared in time to prevent the big splash that’s expected when pieces of land-bound polar glaciers drop into the ocean because of warming seas.

A pipeline covering the distance from the port of Capetown, South Africa, for example, to the heart of the Kalahari Desert could be built in a matter of months. Tow the berg in summer when the sun shines 24 hours a day at the South Pole, and you might be able to move it  with solar power. Dig a lakebed nearby the port to contain the ice while it melts and break it up for land transport or send it by pipeline to where it will do some good. Orange trees in the Kalahari and less sea level rise in Capetown sounds like a win-win proposition. Iceberg mining’s not going to prevent the extinction of human beings, but it might postpone it for a generation or two.

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