Three years of drought have left Cape Town gasping for water. Joe Boyle meets Nick Sloane, the South African salvage expert convinced that towing icebergs from the Antarctic is the solution.
The rain finally came to Cape Town in August, after three years of worsening drought. The six main dams that serve this South African city have replenished. For now. Annual rainfall for each of the past three years has been among the lowest on record. The threat of “Day Zero”, when the taps are turned off, remains. So what’s to be done?
Tow an iceberg (all icebergs are made of freshwater) from the Antarctic to the west coast of South Africa, and melt it down. Obviously.
When the man at the helm of a proposal describes the idea as “crackpot” himself, the chance of success seems limited. Except, that man is Nick Sloane, senior salvage master and director of Resolve Marine Group, the company that salvaged the cruise liner Costa Concordia after it sank off the coast of Italy in 2012. “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” the South African admitted at the time.
A lot of people say the same about the idea of guiding a 100 million-tonne, 850-metre-long iceberg on a 1,500-km (1,000-mile) trip through the South Atlantic and up the Benguela Current. Undeterred, Sloane questioned the rationale used to dismiss his fledgling idea. “Okay, but why hasn’t it been done? We actually found out there’s a lot of satnav tracking of icebergs, and a lot of information about the complexity of the Southern Ocean currents.”
He began to build a team, including Georges Mougin, French engineer and technical director of Iceberg Transport International, and Norwegian glaciologist Olav Orheim, former director of the Norwegian Polar Institute and professor in glaciology at the University of Bergen. Their scientific expertise was key.
“In 2015 I gave the first presentation,” Sloane says. “People thought I was bonkers. A year ago the chance of using an iceberg in the next ten years was about three per cent. In February, interest started to warm up. By May, it was 70 per cent that it could be done in two to three years. It sounds like a crackpot idea, but we’ve got a powerful scientific community, and now everyone’s saying it can be done.”
None of which downplays the complexity. The plan is to identify an appropriately sized, steep-sided, flat-topped iceberg that has separated from vast ice shelves in the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea, and begun to drift north. Once identified, two tugs would encircle the iceberg with what’s called a geotextile insulation skirt. A large tanker, connected by a chain link of up to a mile (1.5km) in length and supported by the two tugs for directional support, would then tease the iceberg north to the predictable Benguela Current that swings up southern Africa’s western coast.