Climate change is causing drought conditions in the United States. That’s bad.

Climate change is causing giant killer icebergs to break free and eventually melt, thus raising ocean levels. That’s bad.

The crackpot in me wonders if there’s some way to float those icebergs (made of fresh water) over to where the droughts are.

You assume this idea is economically impractical. But keep in mind that your budget for getting it done is “trillions of dollars” because that’s how much the economy will lose if we do nothing. So if you think you need a million tugboats to move each giant iceberg, don’t assume that’s out of the budget.

Ideally, you’d want to get those icebergs near the head end of a giant (wait for it) canal system that snakes through the drought-riddled United States. That way much of the iceberg water can be directed to the water tables below parched land before it reaches the warmer sea and raises sea level.

What? You say that canal system would be too expensive? Remember you have trillions of dollars to work with now because the do-nothing alternative is more expensive.

Let’s see some creativity, people. How can we get the fresh water out of those icebergs and into our sinks without raising sea levels?


[Update: Thanks to HelloWorldo for this link to a plan for floating icebergs to Saudi Arabia.]


Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Imagine if everyone read this book except you. How sad would you be?


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+7 Rank Up Rank Down
May 15, 2014

In my head, the cartoon version of pulling in an iceberg melts so much along the way, and ending up the size of an ice cube, just right for Branson's lemonade.

If I had trillions of dollars of stimulus money, I would spend it on energy research. With plenty of clean, cheap energy, you can solve the drought by purifying sea water. If then you didn't need all those oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing America, you could probably pump water anywhere you wanted in those. Oil and gas pipes go to the sea ports for shipping and export, right? So instead, send water inland.

I don't want to live in a cold dark world. I want plenty of energy for heat and light and power to move and work. Energy is everything. I would even go as far as saying energy is more important than water now, because without the energy to clean and pump the water, it does you no good. We have plenty of water. Without the energy we are stuck.

May 15, 2014
If we spent a few billion on biotechnology to make corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat tolerant of salt, that would go a long way to save water.

May 15, 2014
Rather than tow icebergs around, why not just standardize desalination units to pull fresh water straight out of the ocean? I mean, you're still probably going to need to do some kind of minimal processing of the iceberg water, in addition to figuring out how to distribute it once it's ready.

Currently, the thinking on ocean water desalination is that it is too expensive and also rather destructive to the ocean itself (by products, damage to ecosystem), but I feel like some revolutionary thinking could find a better approach than the mere get the water> filter the water process we have now.

This makes me think of the billboard in Lima, Peru, which condenses water out of the air at a rate of about 96 liters per day.

If we can combine (currently non-existent miracle biotech/nanotech membranes that passively filter water, albeit slowly) and widespread small processing of air and ocean water, maybe there's a solution there.
May 15, 2014
Responding to C1-NRB. Ice is a crystal, so water actually expands in volume as it freezes. It mass is constant, but it's suddenly a little less dense, so it floats. Because it floats, some portion of it is above the surface of the water. However, the water level technically doesn't change, because the portion of ice that sticks above the surface is exactly equal to it's increase in volume, as the portion below the surface is displacing it's own total mass in !$%*!$%*!$%*!$%* short, no; the ice sheets that sit on the ocean itself will not alter the sea level if they melt. However, the glaciers that largely sit on "dry" land would slightly. The greatest contribution to predicted sea level rise is due to the expansion of the water itself, as a result of an increasing average sea temp. The effect is miniscule, but evident on the scale of oceans.
May 15, 2014
1. I don't believe in manmade global warming.
2. Blow up an ice-shelf, have boats tow the ice to somewhere you can offload it (large iceburgs last a few weeks).
3. Same as two, but put the ice in the boat first.
4. Blow up an ice-shelf with a nuke because global warming isn't acting fast enough and blame d1ck cheney for trying to eradicate penguins or polar bears or whatever.
5. Tell the top 1% that if they solve this problem they get to live income tax free and investment tax free for the rest of their lives. Call it a fair deal.

[No one believes in man-made global warming. But scientists do mostly believe climate change is happening (as it always does) and human activity is a non-trivial component. -- Scott]
May 15, 2014
The idea of towing icebergs to waterless places around the globe was proposed in 1985 in the Richard Pryor movie Brewster's Millions. In the film, it was characterized as a crackpot scheme, but I always thought it was a great idea whose time would eventually come.
May 15, 2014
Your idea is not a new one, and neither is this one, but even less well considered. About 1000 years ago, the area of the Western US that contains the Salt Flats was a small, inland sea. Much like the Dead Sea in the Middle East. It's also a couple hundred feet below sea level. A canal between San Diego Bay and the Salt Flats could (slowly) refill that inland sea; which will lower the sea level at least as much as a large iceberg ever would, as well as contribute to the water cycle in the dry Western region. If the flow of seawater were piped instead of open canal, the flow could be ran through a water turbine to produce electricity also. The greenies wouldn't permit it though, because that would be 'playing Allah'.

[Now we're talking. Excellent contribution to the topic. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 15, 2014
I noticed that the article HelloWorldo linked to mentioned that they put a "skirt," around the iceberg where it met the water, for insulation.
if the skirt were watertight, and you made it stick up a foot or so from the water, then all the ice that melted would be captured in the skirt. Meaning that instead of losing 38% of the ice to melting, you would just end up with icewater and ice, in a convienent container. Granted, waves would result in some sea water entering your skirt, but not much by volume I suspect. You could also attach some sort of elastic to the outside to press it against the ice and minimize mixing.
In addition, the existing project runs the risk of the iceberg shattering, meaning a total loss of investment. But if the iceberg skirt is watertight, then all the ice and water would still be retained, so there would be minimal losses (assuming the shattering didn't punture the skirt or crush the tug of course...).
May 15, 2014
Sounds a lot like a plan in "Brewster's Millions" (1985):

I didn't say anything about the canal idea at the time, but that was the subject of a 90s Saturday Night Live sketch ("Johnny Canal"). Couldn't find the video.

But now that we have two successive pieces of evidence, I'm calling it: Adams' ideas are being culled from 80s-90s entertainment and foisted upon an increasingly weary and hopeful public.

Reader beware. Next time it'll be something from Zapped: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-lLsewsAuk
May 15, 2014
I'm a water resources engineer and this does in fact capture the problems of climate change in a nutshell. There are two main issues with water resources. 1. Water is never where you want it to be when you want it to be there, and 2. Water doesn't want to go uphill.
The solution to the 1st problem is reservoirs. These are buffers that help smooth out the natural cycles of water abundance and scarcity.
In particular, California still gets consistent amounts of precipitation in any given year, it is just that it is becoming increasingly concentrated in bursts during the winter, and makes it particularily tricky to store. It is a little like trying to extract useful energy from lightening strikes.
But you could extract useful energy from lightening strikes if you had large enough capacitors, and enough of them to consistently catch lightening.
If you want an ambitious project, the way to go would be a honeycomb of man-made lakes high in the Sierra Nevada. these would fill up in the winter and spring, and during wet years, and slowly drain in the summer and fall, and during dry years. The more of these you build, the better your water retention will be. They would be the man-made equivalent of glaciers.
They might even be useful for canals.
May 15, 2014
whtllnew's comment is spot-on. Desalination is billions cheaper. LOTS of desalination might not lower sea levels, but it might cause them to rise a little slower.
May 15, 2014
[ It's the above sea level ice that would melt causing the oceans to rise. At least that's how I understand it. ]

You're wrong about this in particular, but right in general. FLOATING ice, when it melts, will not cause the water level to rise. The amount of water displaced by ice is proportional to its mass, not its size. The reason a portion of floating ice sticks out above sea level is that water expands when it freezes -- increasing its size but decreasing its density. The mass remains the same, however.

The reason you are right in general is that the problem facing us from global warming is ice that is not floating, i.e. almost all of the Antarctic ice cap.
May 15, 2014
You're missing the point that melting icebergs is a bad thing. Pulling them down to where it is warmer accelerates the process. Cheaper to build a desalinization plant.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
May 15, 2014
Monkeys will ride sharks and howl at the icebergs to shame them into moving on their own.
May 15, 2014
While not as useful as being able to deliver fresh water to a specific area of land, a much, much cheaper option would be to put a device on an iceberg that causes it to evaporate rather than just melt. Then let the rain or snow fall where it will.
May 15, 2014
Extend the northern end of the Keystone pipeline to the north coast of Canada, then build an additional pipe that carries nothing but water. The keystone is already slated to run over top of the Ogallala Aquifer (which is a huge underground water reserve that the US has been over using for years). In this way we use the melting ice, plus existing massive amount of fresh water exists up there already, with an existing (or planned) infrastructure project, to refill this vital national resource, without the massive expense.
May 15, 2014
"Was my elementary school science wrong when I learned that water has a constant mass? For instance- fill a glass to the top with ice and water. When the ice melts, does it overflow, drop, or does the level of the water stay the same?"

To equate your glass example to the north pole you would have to pile ice on top of a filled cup of ice water so that it's overflowing with ice. Then let it melt and observe the water running down the sides. It's the above sea level ice that would melt causing the oceans to rise. At least that's how I understand it. But I defer these things to people educated in the field and that actually study the phenomenon.
May 15, 2014
[ ... we seem to have this sort of ridiculous attitude of "This is where we live and we will continue to live here regardless of how little sense it may make and we'll spend trillions of dollars fighting nature in order to continue to live in a place that's doomed." ]

I be hopeful... There is a definite trend of human civilization and culture gradually becoming more mobile. The bonds of cultural identity are becoming more "how we live" than "where we live". Ask any French Canadian. The tether to dirt is slowly yielding to technology that will allow us to implement an enclave of any cultural identity anywhere. The extreme case of this was depicted in a Star Trek TNG episode where a distant class-M planet was, uh, coerced by a weather control network to become the new Scotland. The population was depicted as mixed human and space alien, but somehow all Scottish. Dirt borders will eventually disappear.
May 15, 2014
I expect that we will see something much more simple to deal with the coming state of permanent drought; desalinate ocean water then pump it across the country in giant pipelines.
May 15, 2014
To heck with the icebergs. Many of the drought areas are next to oceans. Why don't those areas build desalinization plants and pipelines? It would be more reliable than hoping to break off icebergs. And what's it costing to have permanent drought conditions in places like California?
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