john-isaacs

John D Isaacs

Oceanographer, fisherman and general “giant of science” John D Isaacs was an ideas man. Towing icebergs from Antarctica to California was one of his best.

Like all true acid ramblers, John Dove Isaacs never let obstructions of reality halt the progress of a grand idea. As a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, from 1948 until his death in 1980, his brilliant mind sprinted, meandered and moon-walked through many fields of research, from climate change to nuclear energy, ocean pollution to desert irrigation.

And icebergs. Or more specifically the towing of icebergs north from Antarctica to supply water to southern California and other coastal deserts.

The Golden State of course is inexorably linked to water; its growth made possible only by the subjugation, re-direction and control of great rivers to create a readily available water supply. Turning the arid and the unusable into the living embodiment of the American Dream was the American Dream. Now the nation’s most populated state, California was brought to life by naked ambition and the taming of nature.

“In a 1956 interview with the Los Angeles Examiner he talked of towing an 8-billion tonne iceberg, some 20 miles long, to San Clemente Island, off the coast of San Diego, in a matter of 200 days.”

But Isaacs was never motivated by money or power. His fascination with providing a viable source of desalinated water was driven by the same active imagination that caused him to invent a baited deep-sea camera and a hydrogen breath heater for divers, which eventually, after his death, saw life as a clever device used to fight hypothermia in cold regions and high mountains. He was also the first to recommend that radioactive waste be buried deep in the sediments of ocean basins.

“He will delight in outlandish and ridiculous forays into different directions for the educational value of what you learn,” a colleague once said of Isaacs.

Towing icebergs wasn’t a new concept. As far back as the 1830s bergs were towed from southern Chile up to Valparaiso as part of a brewery supply chain. But Isaacs embraced the concept with his usual gusto and continued from 1949 onwards to champion the idea. In a 1956 interview with the Los Angeles Examiner he talked of towing an 8-billion tonne iceberg, some 20 miles long, to San Clemente Island, off the coast of San Diego, in a matter of 200 days.

“The berg must be anchored in deep water, of course,” Isaacs said. “The fresh water can be recovered with high yield by surrounding the berg with a floating fence of impermeable material. The water can then be pumped from the fresh water lake that forms.”

As likely to quote Mark Twain, Jules Verne or H.G Wells as a line from a copy of the Scientific American, Isaacs’ thinking was drawn from a wide range of experiences and a vast number of sources. As a young fisherman in coastal Oregon he sometimes worked in a cold storage plant to earn money, where he lugged 300-pound blocks of ice on a daily basis, giving him a bad back for life. It requires no leap of faith to imagine the origins of Isaacs’ fascination with icebergs beginning here.

“My philosophy? I see parts of it scattered in my thoughts and occasionally in things I have written,” Isaacs said. “But I have never attempted to state it.”

 

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