As glaciers melt at record speeds due to climate change, some (often questionable) startups are beginning to harvest the melting freshwater, bottle it up, and ship it off to distant grocery store shelves. But then there are ideas like this one: Why not use the nutrient-rich water to help grow local food for Greenland, which currently ships in almost all of its produce from overseas?
French architecture students came up with the idea for Arctic Harvester, a floating hydroponic farm and village, while doing research for another project on Greenland. "We were struck by the idea that Greenland's icebergs support such rich localized ecosystems…An iceberg is an oasis," says Meriem Chabani, who worked on the concept along with Etienne Chobaux, John Edom, and Maeva Leneveu. "We had what seemed to us a massive resource on one hand, and a massive lack—no local produce—on the other."
The Arctic Harvester, shaped in the circular form of a traditional local village, floats on the water and gathers melting iceberg water into a central bay. The freshwater goes to hydroponic greenhouses on board, growing fruits and vegetables that the mobile harvester can deliver to towns along the coast.
The structure also has space for 800 people to live. "We wanted to explore the limits of the potential that such a floating structure could provide, not just for farming but for research, clean energy production, housing a community and providing for its needs," says Chabani. "A farm, even a hydroponic farm, needs farmers."
Unlike an oil rig, which might host workers in less-than-pleasant conditions away from their families for months at a time, the floating farm is intended for an entire community. Solar panels would take advantage of long summer days to provide power for both plants and people. An osmotic system, which generates power from a mixture of saltwater and freshwater, can provide the rest of the energy needed.
As icebergs move, the structure would move with it. "The vessel as a whole is designed to drift with the currents that carry the icebergs during the course of their lives, often circling on the ocean currents between Greenland and the coast of Labrador for up to two years, before heading south past the east coast of the United States," says Chabani.
Though the idea was originally just an exercise, the team has started working with Polarisk Analytics, a consultancy that works in polar regions and is helping the architects pursue the idea of making the floating farm. Right now, the designers are looking for funding to build small-scale prototypes.
While disappearing glaciers cause obvious major problems for the planet, from sea level rise to faster climate change, maybe this design can provide some small way to capture value that would otherwise be lost. "Facing the problem of global warming, we decided to take a pragmatic approach," Chabani says. "We're combining negatives into one positive proposal."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.