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A pirate-fighting sailor wants to lasso and tow a 125-million-ton iceberg from Antarctica to solve South Africa's water crisis

Business Insider logo Business Insider 6/12/2019 Aylin Woodward

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© David Stanley/Flickr

A South African mariner is pushing for an unusual solution to Cape Town's water shortage: kidnapping an Antarctic iceberg.

Nicholas Sloane, a 56-year-old sailor who helps rescue stranded ships, wants to use supertankers to lasso a piece of floating ice in Antarctica and tow it all the way to Cape Town, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The ideal iceberg, he said, would measure 3,281 feet long, 1,640 feet wide, and 820 feet deep. It would weigh 125 million tons - enough to "supply about 20% of Cape Town's water needs for a year," Sloane told Bloomberg.

His proposal is to drag the captive iceberg more than 1,600 miles - a trip that would take between 80 and 90 days.

"If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I probably would have said this was crazy, but now the time is right," Sloane told Bloomberg.

Water-use quotas are still in place in Cape Town

Sloane has fought armed pirates, salvaged a capsizing cruise ship, and rescued penguins drenched in fuel from a shipwreck, Bloomberg reported. But during Cape Town's crippling water shortage, which started in 2015 and ended last year, Sloane said his family struggled.

Last year, drought conditions in Cape Town got so severe that the city worried it would run out of municipal water entirely. During that time, each household was allowed a daily quota of 13 gallons of water per person for necessities like washing, showering, and drinking. That's less than one-quarter of the the average American's daily water consumption

"That's enough to fill less than half a tub," Sloane told Bloomberg. "My wife used to take a bath every night a shower every morning. She told me, 'You'd better do something.'"

In the end, Cape Town's water stores were not completely emptied, thanks to heavy rainfall and strict water-use restrictions. But residents like Sloane's family still face water quotas: Now they get a slightly higher 18 gallons of fresh water per person per day.

For many South Africans, that's not enough to return to normal-feeling life - and that's where Sloane's icy caper comes into play.

Sloane will tow the iceberg with a 2-mile-wide net

Sloane has recruited a team of glaciologists, oceanographers, and engineers to help him make his iceberg-towing vision a reality. He's calling the initiative the Southern Ice Project.

The team's first step would be to use satellite data to find a berg of the desired shape and size. Once a suitable iceberg is selected, Sloane wants to ensconce it in a giant net, which would be about 2 miles wide and 60 feet high. The net would cost about $25 million and be made out of naturally buoyant ropes that could resist cold temperatures and high friction, Bloomberg reported.

This giant net would get wrapped around the 125-million-ton iceberg iceberg like a belt. Then Sloane would use two supertankers to pull the berg through choppy seas with winds reaching 80 miles per hour.

By the time the supertankers made it to Cape Town, the iceberg would have shrunk by about 8%. Of course, there's no guarantee that the berg wouldn't break up and float away at some point  during the journey. 

If all were to go well, though, the iceberg would get moored off Cape Town's coast using an 800-ton, $22-million skirt. (This would envelop the berg's base to protect it from salt-water erosion in the Atlantic.) Then machines would harvest semi-melted glacier water and transport it to land, where it would get fed into the municipal water system.

Sloane said the iceberg could contribute to the city's water supply for a year before breaking down.

In total, the project is estimated to cost $200 million, and Sloane has secured funding from two South African banks and a Swiss water-tech company. He has also contributed more than $100,000 of his own money to the project.

But Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist, told Live Science that the price tag means "economically, it's probably not all that good an idea, except in dire emergency."

An nearly endless source of fresh water

The Antarctic Ice Sheet extends almost 5.4 million square miles - about the area of the contiguous United States and Mexico combined. The Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets combined contain more than 99% of the world's fresh water.

Every year, more than 100,000 Antarctic icebergs slough off the ice sheet and melt into the ocean. These bergs are often hundreds of times bigger than their Arctic counterparts, and have steep sides and a flat top, much like a tabletop. That makes them more stable and easier to tow, relatively speaking.

Worldwide, 2.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. So investors and innovators see icebergs as a potential source of fresh water that can be harnessed.

In fact, Sloane's project is not the first of its kind. In 2018, an engineering firm in the United Arab Emirates proposed a similar iceberg-towing initiative for Dubai. That venture has yet to get underway, but private investors have put $60 million behind the project, according to NBC.

Read More: An engineering firm wants to tow icebergs thousands of miles from Antarctica to quench the driest areas of the world

"I promise you, the water situation in some parts of Africa is getting worse all the time. It's certainly not getting better," Sloane told Bloomberg, adding, "20 or 30 years from now, I think towing icebergs will be a regular thing." 

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