Why Moving Icebergs From Antarctica to Dubai to Harvest Water Is So Difficult

icebergs in the Antarctic
A seal swims by icebergs off the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera base, January 23, 2009. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

Experts have dismissed an Emirati firm’s plan to tow icebergs 5,700 miles from Antarctica to the Arabian Peninsula, with one academic saying the scheme looks like a “stunt”.  

According to the Associated Press (AP), the National Advisor Bureau Limited, the firm floating the idea, wants to use Antarctica’s crumbling ice shelf to its advantage, harvesting the icebergs in the southern Indian Ocean and dragging them offshore in the United Arab Emirates.

The possible pitfalls, including that the icebergs could melt before they reach the Arabian Peninsula, do not phase the group’s managing director Abdullah Al-Shehi. "The icebergs are just floating in the Indian Ocean. They are up for grabs to whoever can take them," he said.

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However, professor Martin Siegert, the co-director of the Grantham Institute for climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, questions whether the plans are even worth trying. “With so few details given it's hard to take this seriously as anything but a stunt,” he tells Newsweek .

The reason icebergs do not naturally occur far north of Antarctica is the result of a strong polar current and rough conditions in the Southern Ocean. “Breaking through this would be a major feat, and would depend on favorable conditions that are not guaranteed,” Siegert says.

Towing the icebergs beyond the Southern Ocean would also be very difficult because smaller icebergs would be liable to melt and break apart and larger icebergs would get caught in strong undercurrents, Siegert added.

Environmentalists have also criticized the plans. Charlotte Streck, director of the consultancy firm Climate Focus told AP the project was “exceptionally futile” and “expensive.” She added the project ran “counter to all ideas of climate change adaptation."

The National Advisor Bureau believes bringing the polar south to one of the hottest places on earth will solve a number of problems facing Dubai. Al-Shehi said each iceberg would hold around 20 billion gallons of fresh water, allowing the country to avoid the costly process of desalinization that currently provides the vast majority of the Gulf region’s water.

Al-Shehi says the icebergs could provide a huge tourist draw and even change the hot, arid climate in the Gulf. In a statement to Gulf News he said he believed the giant icebergs could bring more rain to the UAE.

“Cold air gushing out from an iceberg close to the shores of the Arabian Sea would cause a trough and rainstorms across the Arabian Gulf and the southern region of the Arabian Peninsula all year round,” he said.

Robert Brears from the climate think tank Mitidaption, told the AP the project would require an initial outlay of at least $500 million.

The National Advisor Bureau is still in the early planning stages of the venture and will seek UAE government approval once a feasibility study is completed. It would have to secure permissions from multiple governments to drag the ice, including from Australia, which limits access to preserve its ecosystems which are disturbed by large ships.

Antarctica itself is subject to global treaties that mandate environmental regulations.

Governments and private individuals have proposed towing icebergs in the past. In 1977 Prince Mohammed al Faisal, a nephew of Saudi Arabia's king said the ice could be used to alleviate drought around the world, The Atlantic reported.

In 1978 California state legislature endorsed a plan to tow two icebergs to southern California to provide fresh drinking water. The scheme was later dropped.