The tabular iceberg that just broke away from the Antarctic Peninsula is said to be as big as the state of Delaware. One difference is that the state of Delaware, in addition to being warmer and closer to Philadelphia, has a population of 900,000, while the iceberg has a population of zero … so far, that is.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This brand-new, empty, pristine, flat-topped iceberg is ripe for commercial exploitation. You could put a string of hotels on it like the ice hotels in Sweden and Canada. You could organize an extremely dangerous ice-climbing expedition up one of its edges. You could mine it for ancient “fossil water” that could be sold straight or used to make premium vodka, as Newfoundlanders are already doing up north. You could try to tow it (or part of it) to the Middle East, as one Abu Dhabi-based company is already seeking to do with smaller Antarctic icebergs.
Or you could get really decadent and invite a few thousand rich hipsters in for an ultra-ironic Climate Change Dance Party.
True, the ‘berg isn’t long for this world. Within a few years—nobody can say how long—it will enter what scientists call its final “ablation.” But taking advantage of evanescent profit opportunities is what capitalism is all about. Think of those pop-up stores that sell Halloween costumes, which my Bloomberg colleagues Patrick Clark and Polly Mosendz wrote about last year. Or consider the trading algorithms on Wall Street that exploit profit opportunities that last milliseconds.
The bigger question is legal. Who gets to decide what happens on the titanic iceberg as it bobs in the southern seas like a giant ice cube in the world’s biggest shot glass? What happens if one entrepreneur wants to put in a runway right where someone else has made another ice sculpture of Donald Trump? You can’t exactly take your case to the iceberg’s small-claims court.
For answers, I tracked down one of the world’s leading experts in iceberg law, Jorge Viñuales, a native of Argentina who is a chaired professor of law and environmental policy at the University of Cambridge in England. Viñuales is a wide-ranging legal scholar, but for purposes of this story his most relevant article is “Iced Freshwater Resources: A Legal Exploration” (2009/2010) in the Yearbook of International Environmental Law.
According to Viñuales, the key determinant of the iceberg’s legal treatment is where it floats to. If it stays south of the 60th parallel—the line of latitude that runs between Antarctica and the tip of South America—it will most likely be governed by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which froze nations’ territorial claims to the continent and guaranteed that it would be used for “peaceful purposes only,” such as scientific research. The treaty permits limited exploitation of biological resources but no exploitation of mineral resources.
The status of icebergs in the Southern Ocean is ambiguous under the treaty, says Viñuales, because ice is neither living nor a mineral. In 1983 the treaty’s governing body passed a resolution calling for research on what to do about icebergs. “Nothing happened,” he says. “There was no real followup.” Why? “Lack of commercial interest.” Despite the lack of legal clarity, Viñuales says he expects the treaty’s signatories would restrict flagrantly commercial exploitation of the giant ‘berg.
If the iceberg floats north above the 60th parallel and winds up within the exclusive economic zone of a country—say, New Zealand, Argentina, or Chile—it becomes subject to that nation’s laws. The zone extends up to 200 miles off a nation’s coastline.
The most interesting possibility is what happens if it floats north above the 60th parallel but not into any country’s exclusive economic zone. Then it’s considered on the “high seas” and essentially becomes a legal no-man’s land. Any dispute over it would probably go to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany, or the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, Viñuales says.
Meanwhile the iceberg is going through another harsh southern winter entirely untouched by human hands. It’s hard even to see it except by plane. “It’s in an area where ships don’t typically go” because it’s stormy, and chockful of ice, and there’s not much wildlife to see except emperor penguins, says Steve Wellmeier, U.S. managing director for Poseidon Adventures. Danger aside, “There’s nothing that would prevent you from going on it. I’m not sure what the attraction would be other than to say you did it.”
Well, yes, that probably is the main attraction: bragging rights. Imagine racing snowmobiles on an iceberg that has twice the fresh water of Lake Erie, knowing that in a few years it will dissolve into nothing.
I spoke with the daredevil explorer Will Gadd, who has climbed Arctic icebergs and is the first person to ice-climb Niagara Falls. “You could climb it,” he says. ”
I actually looked into doing an expedition into getting on that thing. It was just too much cash.
It was a lot of money, and I was not at all sure I would be able to get on it,” he says. “And you’re putting other people at risk, on the boat.”
But what about just ‘coptering out onto the aircraft-carrier-like iceberg for the heck of it? “If you get a party going, I’d buy a ticket,” Gadd says. Somebody, somewhere just might take him up on it. As the planet warms, a new vista of economics and law is opening before us.