Ames, a university town in the center of Iowa and the heart of the Corn Belt, is 1,500 miles from the nearest iceberg. The last time it saw a chunk of ice larger than a house was probably around 12,000 years ago when the last of the Ice Age glaciers retreated northward.
Yet Ames and Iowa State University are hosts this week to the First International Conference on Iceberg Utilization, a scientific get-together that has attracted several hundred scientists from 18 nations, bankrolled by Arabian oil interests who need fresh water.
And to make sure they know what they're talking about, a one-ton piece of genuine glacier ice was flown and trucked in from the Portage Glacier near Anchorage. Alaska, at a cost approaching $10,000.
If you can hear the tinkle of ice a cocktail glass after that, you're right. Though most of the baby iceberg is to be used for analysis and other research, at least some of it will be served in vitro at the conference banquet tonight.
So who had the brillant idea of holding an iceberg conference in the middle of Iowa? Dr. Abdo Husseiny, an Egyptian nuclear engineer presently on the faculty at Iowa State.
Dr. Husseiny, whose specialty is the use of nuclear power to make fresh water out of seawater., is a friend of Prince Mohammad Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia, even though it floats on a sea of oil, is a country desperately in need of fresh water.
The idea of towing an Antarctic iceberg to the shores of Arabia, which appealed to both Husseiny and the prince, has been around for a long time. A tabular mass of ice a mile long and perhaps half a mile wide would contain billions of gallons of water, and all of it would be fresh and pure. But so far, nobody has ever really explored the feasibility of the scheme. Would it melt before it got there? How many tugboats would it take for the job? And, how long would it take?
Would such a mass of frigid ice change the weather, perhaps bringing rain to the Arabian Desert? How would you keep the berg from melting into the sea once you got it there?
A lot of these questions could be answered if you could get the right kinds of people together. And with Arab money behind it, such a conference could be held anywhere in the world that had the facilities.
Why not Iowa State? suggested Husseiny. And so it came to be that the world's first iceberg conference is being held in Ames through Thursday.
Faisal has put up 50,000; the National Science Fondation, $25,000. Other sponsors include Iceberg Transport International, Ltd., King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; King Faisal Foundation, U.S. Coast Guard, International Working Group on Iceberg Utilization, and Iowa State University.
Contributions have also come from Kaiser Engineers of Oakland, Calif., Burns & Rowe, Inc., consulting engineers of Oradell. N.J., and an organization called the International Six.
Prince Faisal himself is attending the conference; he arrived in DesMoines with a party of six Saturday afternoon and was greeted at the airport by Gov. and Mrs. Robert Ray. The prince is president of the Saudi Arabian Saline Water Conversion Corp.
Other participants, many of whom never heard of Iowa, much less Ames, until about a week ago, include Youssef Elakeel, president of Saudi Marketing and General Contracting Corp. Elakeel contributed the money to transport the baby iceberg for the conference centerpiece.
That project started out with a budget of $500. It soon became apparent, however, that plucking an iceberg, even a baby one, out of Alaskan waters for transport to Iowa was not going to be all that easy.
First, the problem of where to find one. The Arctic naval Research Laboratory at Point Barrow, Alaska, was called in and they suggested perhaps the portage Glacier, 50 miles south of Anchorage, could supply the ice. The glacier originates in the Chugach Mountains and ends in a lake.
A helicopter and scuba divers were hired. The divers were to jump in the lake, select a suitable size piece of ice and put a net around it so the helicopter could lift it out and carry it to Anchorage International Airport.
But when the scheduled day arrived last week, it was raining and low clouds prevented the flight. The next day, Anchorage got its first snow of the season. Finally, on Friday, it cleared and the iceberg was on its way.
At the Anchorage Airport, it was cut with chain saws to fit a crate 6 by 5 by 4 feet, then wrapped in insulation and chilled with dry ice. The daily freight flight out of Anchorage carried it to Minneapolis. There a refrigerated truck was waiting to carry it the remaining 250 miles to Ames, where it was placed in a walk-in cooler in the kitchen of Iowa State's student memorial union until Tuesday's banguet - except for a few chips used to chill a glass of apricot hector for Faisal on Sunday.
Husseiny estimates the Portage Glacier ice is about 10,000 years old. It began as snow and over the years was compressed into flint-hard blue white ice by the pressure of additional snows. The air that was in the snow is still trapped in the ice, Husseiny says, and when it melts, as in a martini, it provides a pleasant crackling sound as the tiny bubbles of ancient air mingle with the drink.
A fitting accompaniment for an iceberg conference, he believes.