'Will Tow Icebergs to Market' - Pacific Standard
Schemes to bring Alaska’s water—frozen and otherwise—south to thirsty California and beyond are more than a century old.

"Within the next few weeks, if you happen to be gazing out over the ocean and see a huge iceberg go floating calmly by in tow of a puffing little tugboat, you may set down that remarkable spectacle to mean that the ‘Klondike and Cuba Ice-Towing and Anti-Yellow Fever Company’ has got into working order."

That’s the lede of an item, "Will Tow Icebergs to Market," that ran in the San Francisco Examiner on April 10, 1898. The story went on:

The Klondike and Cuba Ice-Towing and Anti-Yellow Fever Company is an organization that is in earnest, despite the fantastic nature of its undertaking. It intends to make a serious business of towing icebergs from the Klondike to such countries in the southern seas as are in need of refrigeration or cooling applications, ice water, ice cream, cracked ice for fever patients, etc.

People of those torrid regions hitherto have been denied the luxury of artificial regulations of the temperature to any great extent; they have had to take the intense heat which so drearily assailed them and bear it with such fortitude as they could muster with parched tongues and baked throats. But if those icebergs which at present lie so idly in the Arctic regions can have ropes tied around their necks and be hauled down where they can do a little freezing to good advantage, the condition of the equatorial temperature may be rendered vastly more tolerable.

The Examiner story was accompanied by a large illustration of a mountainous iceberg reigned in by a simple lasso, being towed along behind a smoke-belching tugboat. In the background, a map shows a dotted-line route from the Bering Strait south along the west coasts of North and South America, all the way to Santiago, Chile.

Set aside the fact that the Klondike is a relatively low-lying region in the landlocked Yukon interior, with no icebergs to speak of (mountaintop glaciers don’t tow very well). Ignore, too, that Chileans have the ice fields of Patagonia—not to mention the whole frozen continent of Antarctica, lying close by—from which to import ice if they so choose. And let’s not even worry about whether or not a lassoed iceberg would survive a long, slow, cruise through equatorial waters. (Though iceberg wrangling, for what it’s worth, is a real thing.) I dusted off this story, which I came across in the Yukon Archives a couple years back, because of what it tells us about how the Arctic has so often been perceived: as a place from which any number of useful things can be extracted as they’re needed—a sort of geographical Room of Requirement.

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There’s a long list of industries that have lived and died on the natural resources they extracted from the North: Whalers operated in Baffin Bay, between Greenland and Nunavut, for centuries; the Russians pillaged the Aleutian Islands and southwestern Alaska for sea otter furs; miners stampeded through several distinct Yukon and Alaska gold rushes. These days, the talk is all about fracking on the mainland, or offshore oil on the Arctic coast.

And then there’s our water. Hearing all the talk about California’s ongoing drought, I thought of that iceberg-towing scheme again, and dug up the newspaper story from the depths of my very messy desk.

This summer, a smaller-scale bulk water export operation is slated to start moving water south from Sitka, Alaska, by cargo ship.

The long dry spell has resurrected a perennial discussion about the possibility of exporting Alaska’s water by pipeline south to the Lower 48. The idea came up in the 1960s, but didn’t fly because, as Alissa Walker writes at Gizmodo, "the hundreds of dams and power plants needed to complete the system would have basically eradicated the wildlife habitats of most of the rivers in Western Canada, Montana and Idaho, and the act of removing freshwater from Alaska could have had an irrevocable effect on the formation of Arctic ice."

The scheme re-surfaced in 1991, when Alaska’s governor, Wally Hickel, proposed a freshwater pipeline running down the Pacific Coast. (The system up for discussion in the 1960s would have run through the Rocky Mountain states.) His plan called for a trillion gallons of water piped south each year, from the mouths of either the Stikine River, the Copper River, or both. The water would have traveled through a series of undersea aqueducts powered by pumping stations spaced out every 150 miles, at a construction cost of $110 billion (in 1991 dollars). It was rejected largely for economic reasons—there were cheaper ways for California to address its water shortfall—although it raised some environmental concerns, too.

Now, the idea is being kicked around again. This summer, a smaller-scale bulk water export operation is slated to start moving water south from Sitka, Alaska, by cargo ship. In February, Wired looked back at the Hickel plan, to see if it might be more viable in today’s economy and with today’s technology. The verdict? Despite a substantially expanded California tax base, and an ever greater need as the drought deepens, the financials still don’t make sense. The idea is, "unfortunately, still crazy."

But the pros and cons listed in the Wired story are striking. Paraphrasing the "pro" argument, Nick Stockton writes: "The state is weeping snowmelt into the North Pacific. Nobody’s using it." And the arguments on the "con" list are largely economic. There’s little to suggest that Alaska might be anything other than a resource to be tapped when the bottom line makes sense.

That brings me back to the iceberg-towing scheme. "No one can tell but what those icebergs were really placed at man’s disposal for some such purpose as we are putting them to," an anonymous "Denver gentleman" from the Klondike and Cuba company told the Examiner. "They certainly have no visible reason for existence up North. It just looks as though they had been piled up there for man to make some wise use of, and it has taken man all these ages to get his eyes open and see what he could do with them."

Funny, isn’t it, how things always seem to look that way to us, whether it's 1898 or 2015—like they have no "visible reason for existence" beyond serving our needs.

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Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.

Lead photo: Braided channels of the Stikine River near Little Dry Island. (Photo: Sam Beebe/Flickr)

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