Sat, Nov 18, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Dick Smith's titanic plan

The appearance of giant icebergs near New Zealand is reviving one man's dreams of using them to slake Australia's thirst during droughts

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE GUARDIAN , SYDNEY

A helicopter carrying seven sightseers is dwarfed by the northernmost iceberg off Dunedin, New Zealand.

PHOTO: AFP

Australian tycoon and adventurer Dick Smith says he will "revisit" his 30-year-old dream of towing icebergs from Antarctica to Australian cities like Perth or Sydney to break his country's crippling drought.

"This isn't a crazy idea," he says, "but it is bold, and the time and necessary technology might just be right."

Smith's interest was re-ignited after two vast clusters of icebergs drifted to within 260km of the southern New Zealand city of Invercargill on Nov. 6.

It was the nearest reported approach of an iceberg to New Zealand since 1931, when one appeared over the horizon from a Dunedin beach.

Until Wednesday when the floating ice mountains, which were expected to break up and melt before being visible from land, re-appeared about 60km from the coast and were visited by reporters winched down on to them from helicopters.

Among the flotillas of bergs first spotted by a Royal New Zealand Air Force patrol flight were some that were around 2km long.

They towered more than 130m above the surface, which in terms of being the proverbial "tip" of an iceberg, meant that an icy keel with a depth of around 900m of ice lay hidden below the waterline.

The ice armadas, comprising both major bergs and thousands of lumps down to the size of trucks took maritime authorities by surprise.

Marine scientists said the emptiness of the southern oceans and skies compared to the busy air and sea lanes of the North Atlantic allowed the ice armadas to approach undetected.

Nor is there any agreement on whether the outbreak of Antarctic icebergs is climate change related, or just cyclical.

Giant icebergs were seen off Tasmania early in the 20th century and by Spanish explorers off Brazil in the 18th century, when the world was cooler, and the all time record for a northern sighting of southern ice was recorded in 1894, in the mid Atlantic Ocean only 400km short of the tropic of Capricorn.

In 1976, Dick Smith championed an idea that had been proposed ever since the start of the last century to tow icebergs to places where fresh water was scarce.

He chartered the first Boeing 747 sightseeing flights over the fringes of Antarctica to film the enormous ice shelves where glacial streams from the continent pushed their way out to sea as a solid floating mass before calving into icebergs.

"The idea was that since Antarctica locked up 90 percent of earth's fresh water, pushing or pulling the vast chunks that break off toward a southern city like Adelaide could see them arrive before too much of them melted away, with what was left used to top up the water supply," Smith says.

"But it didn't work."

Detailed studies by Australian Antarctic scientists and engineers including the advanced notion of using giant nuclear powered tugs concluded that even if suitably sized bergs could be shrouded in plastic to slow down the melting, the end result would be an enormous plastic bag full of melt water that would cause so much drag it would scarcely move, and use too much energy to be worthwhile.

"But I discovered it could work as a stunt to generate publicity," Smith says. "On April 1, 1978 we had a tug tow a barge we had secretly buried under white plastic foam into Sydney Harbor at dawn. Two hundred of my employees rang radio stations to say "It looks like an ice berg is coming through the heads."

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