Watch A Tugboat Drag An Arctic Iceberg To Parched People Half A World Away [Video]

Since he was hired in the '70s by Saudi prince Mohammad al-Faisal, French engineer Georges Mougin has tried to figure out a way to tow freshwater icebergs across the Arctic. Now, with 3-D tech, declassified satellite data, and tugboats, he might have cracked the way to quench the world's thirst.

tugboat towing iceberg

There are 1.1 billion people in the world without clean drinking water. Meanwhile, billions of gallons of freshwater disappears uselessly into the ocean, the result of icebergs that break off from the ice caps of Greenland and melt into the salty mix.

Do you spot an inefficiency in the system here?

So did French engineer Georges Mougin. And that's why he's invented a system for towing icebergs across the ocean and straight to the world's thirsty. Using 3-D technology, recently declassified satellite data, and the new science of oceanic forecasting, Mougin has created an elaborate method for hauling ginormous icebergs using a "skirt" and a tugboat.

It might sound outlandish, but Mougin has been trying to tap the icecaps for decades. In the 1970s, Mougin was enlisted by prince Mohammad al-Faisal, a nephew of the Saudi king, along with other engineers and a polar explorer, in a venture called "Iceberg Transport International." Faisal planned on wrapping a 100-million-ton iceberg in sailcloth and plastic and tugging it from the North Pole to the Red Sea, though the cost was estimated at an exorbitant $100 million. For a swank conference on "iceberg utilization," he even managed to ship, via helicopter, plane, and truck, a two-ton "mini-berg" from Alaska to Iowa, where the giant block of ice was chipped apart to chill delegates' drinks. According to a Time report from October of 1977, Faisal predicted that he'd have an iceberg in Arabia "within three years."

That didn't happen. The Iowa iceberg conference erupted into discord over price and feasibility.

Thirty-five years later, though, Mougin thinks he can now succeed where Prince Faisal failed. Mougin partnered with a French design firm, Dassault Systèmes, which specializes in running elaborate 3-D simulations. Dassault had garnered some press after helping an architect explore a theory about the construction of pyramids. Mougin then got in touch with Cédric Simard, a project director at Dassault's Systèmes, thinking, says Simard, "Well, if they can help that architect with the pyramids, surely they can help me with my iceberg project."

And indeed they could. The team spent months gathering data and building a virtual simulation that they felt truly modeled the real world. There were many parameters: the boat's fuel supply and the iceberg's melt rate, on the one hand, and then the countless variables of the fickle ocean itself--sea currents, swells, winds, and so on.

What does towing an iceberg actually entail? Dassault gave us an exclusive look at some 3-D animated renderings. Here, then, is an illustrated guide on how to tow an iceberg.

Step one: You can't just grab an iceberg any time of the year. "There is a season for harvesting icebergs, a bit like tomatoes," says Simard with a laugh. You'll want to consult a glaciologist.

Also, you'll want an iceberg of the optimum size--not too big, but not too small--and shape. "When you think of icebergs, if you just ask people in the street, they think of icebergs with the shape of mountains." But a craggy, irregular iceberg is the last kind you want, if you're going to lug the thing across an ocean. You want a regular, table-shaped or "tabular" iceberg. That shape "truly facilitates towing," says Simard, "and is known by glaciologists as the family of icebergs which presents the minimum risk of fracture."

Once you've found the proper Titanic-buster, have your tugboat (yes, a tugboat--more on that later) deploy a floating geotextile belt--made rigid by a series of poles--around the target, effectively lassoing the iceberg. The belt, which extends 20 feet above the surface of the water and 20 feet below, acts as a sort of fence keeping out waves that might erode the iceberg.

The iceberg in the video above might not seem all that formidable. But recall the old saying about icebergs and their tips.

Which brings us to step two: Deploy a geotextile "skirt" to snag the bulk of the beast and to keep as much as possible from melting away. The skirt deploys down the height of the berg, some 525 feet in an ideal case. Below the surface, icebergs are smoothed by ocean currents, making it unlikely the skirt will tear as it protects its cargo.

And now the third and final step (theoretically): Tow that iceberg across the ocean before it melts away.

A tugboat actually can't lug an iceberg all by itself; it's a question of harnessing the sea's natural forces. This is where satellite data and oceanic forecasting comes in. "Though it doesn't look like this when on a boat, from a satellite's perspective, [the ocean] looks like a big map of bumps and holes," explains Simard. Navigating those pockets, like a mogul ski slope, would be the key--if the towing were possible at all.

And was it possible? Dassault Systèmes gathered all the data, built the 3-D world, and invited Mougin over as they pressed play on their simulation. On the first try, the results were disappointing. The iceberg got caught in a giant whirling eddy for weeks (of simulation time), melting away.

But Mougin was stoic: "When you're an engineer, you have to measure your emotions," says Simard. "When something fails, you always know there is a reason."

The team had chosen a simulated launch date that wasn't conducive to iceberg steering. If they adjusted the date by a few weeks, into a different part of the season, would the iceberg be able to escape that eddy? They altered that parameter, pressed play--and "it just worked," says Simard.

The team even discovered that just a single tugboat could theoretically haul an iceberg. They say it's like a nutshell towing a mountain--and yet it's possible. For more details, Simard has been blogging of late on the wild scheme, or track down the documentary about Mougin's Fitzcarraldian dream, which is so far only for French TV.

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.

To the global thirsty, then, take heart: a mountain of water is looming on the horizon.

[Video and image courtesy of Dassault Systemes]

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Email David Zax, the author of this post, or follow him on Twitter.

Add New Comment

26 Comments

  • Heatherling

    So.... What happens when the iceberg gets to Saudi Arabia?  Does it sit next to the coastline, melting away and changing ocean currents?  Do they hope to somehow get it up onto land faster than it can melt?  I'm a little unclear about the end result of this plan.

  • Tom W. Bell

    Why not use wind?  Masts embedded in the berg, or parasails anchored to its surface, could turn it into a huge, frozen, sailboat.  Since greater surface area allows for more sail area, a tugboat's power is no longer a limiting factor.  Bigger bergs can survive longer trips through warm water, too, allowing for slower trips.  Giant bergs would even generate their own weather and, thus, wind.

  • Tom W

    This is totally ridiculous. If you live in a overpopulated desert with millions of others you should use family planing. Oh yah, almost forgot ridiculous religious beliefs.

  • So ridiculous religious beliefs = bad family planning? And Saudi's can, by changing their religious beliefs, magically cause millions of people to disappear and not neet water? What a ridiculous idiot atheist you are. Get a brain arrogant simpleton. "foolish and unlearned questions avoid" - the apostle Paul.

  • Mike Shrewsberry

    I remember bvack in the 1970's a similar proposal to take Antarctic ice to Southern California. Back then bucking the Humbolt Current was thought to be the primary obstacle.

  • Max Bancroft

    A virtual river of fresh water flows out from under the antarctic ice cap into the sea. If pipes were installed bulk tankers could simply fill their holds

  • Jonathan

    Or the Saudis could simply buy Fiji water, which already somehow gets shipped across the Pacific in massive amounts to supply restaurants and stores all over the U.S.

  • claes rydeman

    cemargun, I think the answer is easy. Accordig to international agrements the antarctics are not to be exploided by anybody. When the iceberg is beyond any countrys claimes around the antarctics  I guess it is anybodys price, just like whales and the krills.
    In the Antarctics the "white" people  (for one times sake) have agreed upon, that nobody owns anything , but that the land is divided and ruled by certain tribes (US-Argentina-Norway...etc....) so that the tribes chiefs can decide who is allowed to be where and when, but that the land in it self ,and its riches, in the end  belongs to nobody.
    This is a point of view, that is very disturbing  to a lot of peoble, maybe like your self, who is acustomed to the thought that every thing in this world is owned by somebody.  

  • Cem ARGUN

    Well let's assume an iceberg splits from the mainland or a from a much bigger ice island. This chunk of floating water might be assumed as a natural resource. So who owns it in legal terms, until it reaches international waters? We might assume that if this icberg hunting becomes feasible, it will be shared by countries having territorial claims & natural resource rights within the Arctic circle, such as Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia & USA.

  • Ecofriendly

    OMG, o.k. for those that have never seen an iceberg or don't know the dynamic properties of icebergs perhaps you've seen graphics that show about 1/10 of an iceberg is above the surface and the balance below.  Similar to an icecube in your drink.  Now, as an iceberg melts, which is it want to do as it is dragged to southern climes the iceberg will roll over.  You can witness this every year if you happen to be lucky enough to visit Newfoundland Canada in the summer as 'bergs' pass by. 

    No amount of netting or other device can prevent that natural rebalancing of an iceberg.  So how do you tow something that rolls over at will?

    Additionally, an iceberg is going to go wherever it wants and no manner of human engineering is going to change that (read: we don't have tugs big enough).  When the current or a wind pushes against an iceberg it will go the path of least resistance.  Often icebergs in the north atlantic will move in circles blown by the wind and moved by currents against what might appear to be natural.  It's a beautiful thing to see and unnerving if you are working on a production platform in the north atlantic.

    Finally, the largest tugs in the world are used to service oil rigs/platforms in the north atlantic and have had very limited success towing icebergs out of harms way. And that is with very small bergs in the order of 100k tonnes.  Usually the tugs just get towed around backward by the berg.  The job of the tug is to nudge the berg off its intercept path with a platform for safety sake.

    Now moving a million tonne berg is another question all together.  Fancy 3D programs etc. can't predict what nature is going to do.

    Nough said.  Let's look at practical solutions for the billion people without clean water and the 3 billion without adequate sanitation.

  • claes rydeman

    Dear Auntie, we can't make away water like we do oil. But we can destroy it, and we are doing it right now. 
    If you have got a chance, leave this Colorado River based culture ASP.
    Even here where i live, we have problems with medicines passing on into the rivers. Especialy 
    hormones from contraceptives, and antibiotic drugs from pig and cowfarms. It is not a big problem for the moment being - we just pas it on to the sea, and our next generation will find out sooner or later what kind of problem that gives. They will definitivly say that we were not in control .  

  • claes rydeman

    What I ment to say is that, when ever you take out fresh water (not just icebergs, but even from river mouths) where it runs out into the oceans, you won't take it out of the loop. It will eventualy return - and rather fast. Seen over a shorter periode, it will either vapourice or run out as waste water.
    Water is not like oil a finite resource. Water will always be there, and in the same amount. It is just a question of directing it, and of course handling it right. Just for the perspective: Ground water on the the other hand is a quite different story, and in some areas that is an absolutely limited resource, that may not be replaced easily.

  • Auntie Em

    Claes, this is a faulty assumption. Take for example an average size city. Groundwater, surface water, wastewater, and drinking water is not discreet. I used to live in Tucson, which got the majority of it's water from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project. Enormous expense and politics played part to assuage the development lobby to ensure adequate water for growth was secured. What didn't fit in the equation was that CAP water went through 7 different municipal water treatment systems in Las Vegas before entering the canal, to be pumped uphill across the desert for hundreds of miles. In this water, which Tucson so wisely pumps directly into the aquifer without treatment, are loads of trace contaminants from mining and pharmaceutical use. What's true is that it is - and will remain too expensive to remove things like endocrine disruptors from water in municipal systems. This is a serious problem with the water cycle, as the only place the chemical are ever removed that are placed there by industry and medical professions is either our bodies or the environment. Serious ecological disruptions and huge costs in healthcare are the result, and the causes are nicely insulated from liability. This is just one example of how dangerous it is, and has always has been for us to assume that natural resources can be taken for granted. The great myth, as my colleague likes to say is "We know what we are doing and we are in control." Tell that to BP et al.

  • Michael Powers

    Why not just re-purpose oil tankers as water tankers? Melt the iceberg into the tanker and tank it off to the parched. Seems easy to me.

  • Auntie Em

    I agree with Robert Vance. There is the law of unintended consequences, which much counter the desire to just throw bigger and badder tech at every problem. There is a law of diminishing returns as far as technology goes, and we're past it in many ways where our unthinking ambition has got us into feedback loops that are untenable (oil, gas, endocrine disruptors, etc.)... all of which have the same solution: you must understand SCALE. At smaller scales almost anything is sustainable, while at behemoth sizes, almost nothing is. The future is radical conservation coupled with equitable distribution, no matter how you slice it. A rich prince is the only one to afford fresh water? How many times do you have to watch Tank Girl to get that as a bad idea? As we say about appropriate technology, just because you can does not mean you SHOULD. Peace.

  • claes rydeman

    Once uppon a time (maybe early 90ths) there was a plan to gain freshwater for export from the North Botnic Bay in the Baltic Sea.
    The idea was to sail into the bay, open the bottom ventiles and let fresh water in the tanks, and off you go.
    The main idea is good but it takes some preparations, which may be costly, and would include rather big bilateral efforts from Finland and Sweden (who maybe together "own" this part of the baltic sea). 
    The water in this particular area is almost fresh, and origins from mountains, forests and low intensive farming, no big cities and, yes, a number of paper industries that tend to be rather polluting (how much though, i don't know).
    The ships could be single hulled, and because the cargo is quite cheap, they wouldn't have to go very fast in order to be rentabel.
     If the market is the Mediterranean or the Near East, the logistics migth not be completely impossible.
    It seems- to me - to be a little simpler than towing an iceberg across the rouring oceans from the Antarctics.

  • Claire Thompson

    Wouldn't reforestation be more effective?

    Surely there's only so many times you can remove an iceberg before icebergs (and seals, and polar bears) cease to exist?

    So whilst it's a fun math problem, perhaps the genii reading could work out mathematically how much reforestation would need to happen to encourage enough moisture back into the eco-system to reduce thirst longer term?

  • LB

    Robert, I agree with you fully. We hear about the impending disaster of the melting of the ice cap, and it does appear to be melting and breaking apart. Why would towing it away and melting it somewhere else be any better for the environment? I live in a Northern country, and I would be dead set against anybody coming in and towing my ice-bergs to some desert. This may sound mean spirited, but the fact is that climate change affects everybody, and the warming of the oceans that this would facilitate would probably affect equatorial deserts more acutely than anybody else.