Current Issue
This Month's Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

5 minute read

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.

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]