Arctic Harvester

An illustration shows the Arctic Harvester collecting icebergs. (Image: Meriem Chabani, Etienne Chobaux, John Edom, Maeva Leneveu)

Global warming could eventually help Greenland live up to its name, but the icy island won't transform into a lush, arable paradise overnight. Even with the ridiculously fast pace of modern climate change, Greenlanders will probably still depend on foreign fruits and vegetables for centuries to come.

Unless someone invents a futuristic hydroponic ark powered by icebergs and sunlight, that is.

Glaciers are melting unusually quickly in the Arctic, calving off more icebergs whose freshwater is lost into salty seas. An array of opportunists already harvest it to make everything from bottled water to vodka, but four French architecture students have an even better idea: Use meltwater from Greenland's icebergs to irrigate crops on an offshore hydroponic farm called the Arctic Harvester.

It's a cool concept (see details below), but it's not just a starry-eyed student project. It won first prize at the 2013 Jacques Rougerie Foundation Competition — a global contest for ideas about space, oceans and "enabling the evolution of our society" — and its inventors are now fleshing out the logistics with Polarisk Analytics, a consulting firm that specializes in Arctic and Antarctic issues. An updated proposal will be unveiled April 28, co-creator and Paris-based architect Meriem Chabani tells MNN via email.

Here's the basic idea: The circular ship floats on the surface, gathering icebergs in a central bay and collecting their freshwater as they melt. That water then flows up to hydroponic farming levels, and later to an osmotic energy plant that provides electricity (along with solar panels). When it's not too busy with icebergs, the ship also delivers fresh Greenlandic produce to towns along the coast.

Arctic Harvester

Image: Meriem Chabani, Etienne Chobaux, John Edom, Maeva Leneveu

But this isn't just a farm on a fancy barge. While other offshore facilities like oil rigs often separate workers and their families for weeks or months, the Harvester would house a community of up to 800 people at sea. That should boost morale and mental health — Greenland is part of Denmark, after all, the land of "hygge" — but it also complicates the logistics, requiring enough public space, amenities and electricity to accommodate more than 1 percent of Greenland's entire population.

To help its inhabitants feel at home, the Harvester's amphitheater-like shape is also inspired by traditional seaside villages in Greenland (see illustration below), an attempt to mimic their "social, cultural and economic relationship to the sea," according to Chabani. Such reminders of home might come in handy, too, since the crew would need to travel hundreds of miles away from Greenland.

"The vessel as a whole is designed to drift with the currents that carry the icebergs during the course of their lives," Chabani says, "often circling on the ocean currents between Greenland and the coast of Labrador for up to two years, before heading south past the east coast of the United States."

Arctic Harvester

Image: Meriem Chabani, Etienne Chobaux, John Edom, Maeva Leneveu

Rather than running around like Pac-Man, the Harvester would likely get help reeling icebergs in. "[It] would have a small number of iceberg wranglers whose job is to identify appropriately sized and stable icebergs in the immediate vicinity," Chabani says, "and then maneuver them to the conveyer belt using towing techniques currently used to redirect icebergs that threaten offshore oil platforms."

That conveyer belt would then slowly pull icebergs over the hull, draining off excess seawater in a process meant to keep the central bay's salinity low. Once inside, ice would melt at a natural, unaided pace. "Icebergs constitute a natural oasis for marine life," Chabani explains, "and in retaining a pool of icebergs at the center of the Arctic Harvester that melt at the same rate as they would elsewhere, we seek to encourage the continuation of this localized ecosystem in harmony with the vessel."

Arctic Harvester

Image: Meriem Chabani, Etienne Chobaux, John Edom, Maeva Leneveu

Still, conservationists might cringe at more large machinery in the Arctic, especially given the region's existing issues with drilling, shipping and climate change. Could the Harvester hurt whales?

Probably not, Chabani says, or at least no more than any other large ship: "As the Arctic Harvester is designed to follow the ocean currents, it is envisaged that it would rarely be necessary to use the engines. As such, the superstructure will be moving at a very slow speed and thus pose less threat than other large ships, and under power, no greater risk than another ship of a comparable size."

Passive strategies like drifting with ocean currents and letting icebergs melt slowly, she adds, are part of the project's overarching goal to create "a monumental structure that adapts to the resource it harvests, in a symbiosis with its environment rather than seeking to overpower it."

Arctic Harvester

Image: Meriem Chabani, Etienne Chobaux, John Edom, Maeva Leneveu

The Arctic Harvester could trigger a sea change in human agriculture, but it could also die on the vine. A structure of its scale obviously wouldn't be cheap to build, so Chabani and her co-creators — Etienne Chobaux, John Edom and Maeva Leneveu — are working with Polarisk to study viability and develop a more in-depth proposal that can pave the way for prototypes and fundraising.

"We have been very pleasantly surprised with the interest that has been shown in the project, and clearly winning the Jacques Rougerie Foundation Competition has been a real game changer," Chabani says. "Our ideal from the start was to explore ways to develop small-scale prototypes of the various systems that make up the Arctic Harvester, and we are hoping to find investment and the opportunity for further exchange with experts in the field to push the project forward."

Russell McLendon is science editor at MNN. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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