As early as this summer, a giant Alaskan glacier may begin tossing thousands of icebergs of all sizes into the path of the 200,000-ton supertankers hauling oil south from the transAlaskan pipeline, according to a government study team.
A second group of federal scientists, who have been pondering the nightmare prospect for the Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction over the Alaskan oil shipping lanes, said yesterday they have come up with these potential solutions to the problem:
Hang a 2 1/2-mile, $32 million nylon rope across the mouth of the channel near the glacier to corral the passing icebergs and hold them there until they melt.
Lasso the wayward icebergs, hook them up to a flotilla of tugboats, and tow them off out of the way.
Shut down the oil-tanker traffic and, most likely, the pipeline until the icebergs go away.
Coast Guard Capt. Ronald Kollmeyer, who headed the team that prepared the proposed solutions, said yesterday that his suggestions, which are being circulated in draft form among government and scientific circles, drew some laughter at first.
"Some people said go away and don't bug us with off-the-wall ideas like that," said Kollmeyer, chief of the Ocean Science Section at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
"But then," he said, "after they shifted back and forth and tried to think of something else, they realized they weren't really all that weird."
Kollmeyer's team also suggested as another alternative that a powerful radar station be built along Valdez Arm, the waterway used by the supertankers on their way to the pipeline terminal, to spot the bergs. The arm is nine miles from the 42-mile-long Columbia glacier, which scientists said is showing increasing signs of "calving" icebergs into the shipping lanes.
Once the icebergs are spotted, however, he said there is still the problem of how to avoid them. "It would be like trying to run through the defensive backfield of the Washington Redskins," said another federal expert. "In a collision between some of the icebergs we've already seen from that glacier and one of those tankers I'd bet on the glacier to win."
Last August, the Coast Guard shut down the Valdez Arm shipping lanes to night tanker traffic for several short periods after the apperance of numbers of icebergs calved by the glacier. The U.S. Geological Survey has been studying the glacier with a 14-member scientific team under a two-year $1.3 million project.
The Interior Department, which oversees USGS, said yesterday the team's first-year studies showed that the glacier was increasing its production of icebergs. Some of the icebergs are already floating down Columbia Bay from the glacier and into shipping lanes used by oil tankers, according to the Interior Department announcement.
Austin Post, a hydrologist and member of the research group, said yesterday that if the glacier begins to shrink it could rapidly increase iceberg calving by up to 50 times its normal production.
"There's about a 50-50 chance it will begin shrinking this summer or in the next few years," he said. "This is an instability that has been building up for decades." The glacier is the only one of the seafront glaciers in Alaska that has not undergone a shrinkage, he said.
At present the glacier periodically drops large chunks of ice off its 100-foot-high face with a roar, an event that has become an Alaskan tourist attraction.
The most serious study of ways to contain the icebergs has gone into the nylon rope barrier, according to the Coast guard experts. Kollmeyer said his group designed a rope barrier to hang just below the surface of the 1,000-foot-deep channel and catch the icebergs as they float past.