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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

FREEZE! The Great Ice Heist

Air Date: Week of

A community of fishermen built their lives and the town of Petersburg around the steady supply of ice from the LeConte’ Glacier. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Scott Ableman)

A Chilean man was arrested for stealing 11,000 pounds of glacier. The intercepted ice was destined for cocktail glasses in Santiago. Black market ice is a new problem in Chile but using the glaciers to chill things is an old practice that has built a town in Alaska and a nearly forgotten industry. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah brings the cold, hard truth.


GELLERMAN: NASA scientists have discovered a giant crack in Antarctica’s fastest melting glacier. When it calves, it's expected to create a 350 square mile iceberg - that’s larger than the five boroughs of New York City combined. And that’s just a small chunk of the glacier ice lost to the sea. A new study finds the world’s glaciers are shedding 150 billion tons of ice annually; melted, that’s enough freshwater to fill Lake Erie eight times over. Climate change is responsible for most of the loss but as Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports - some of that glacial ice can be found in fancy cocktails.

Nick Lavars covers ice crime among other beats for the Santiago Times. (Courtesy Nick Lavars)


SRISKANDARAJAH: Where do ice cubes come from? Well, if you run the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart in the Simpsons, you get them delivered by a team of Arctic explorers.


[SIMPSONS CLIP: MAN’S VOICE: You’ve gotta start selling this for more than a dollar a bag - we lost four more men on this mission. APU: If you can think of a better way to get ice, I’d like to hear it. MEN: mumble in agreement, it beats me.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: But for most Americans, modern convenience takes the hazard out of a drink on the rocks. And not all ice is created equal. Most look at a glacier and see frozen water, but some see slowly moving gold. That’s what enterprising thieves saw when they braved the elements and broke the law for a chance at icy glory in the Southern Patagonian ice fields of Chile. Nick Lavars covered the story for the Santiago Times.

LAVARS: So it’s believed they traveled there by boat and then transported the ice piece by piece into, yeah, into the back of a refrigerated truck.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Piece by piece the alleged criminals loaded 11 thousand pounds of ice from the Jorge Montt glacier. Even though the Patagonian ice field is the third largest in the world - after Antarctica and Greenland - a guy driving a truck with five tons of frozen national monument will draw attention.

Jorge Montt Glacier, Chile (English) TL from Centro de Estudios Científicos on Vimeo.

Time lapse of the Jorge Montt Glacier (by Centro de Estudios Científicos)

LAVARS: So he didn’t very far at all, I don’t even know if he even made it out of the town before the police pulled him over and checked out what was in the back of the truck.

SRISKANDARAJAH: They found what amounts to $6000 worth of stolen ice. The driver was arrested for theft and prosecutors may try him under Chile’s National Monument Act. The Jorge Montt glacier is a popular tourist destination and has recently become the poster child of climate change. A Chilean research team spent a year photographing it to show that it is one of the fastest receding glaciers in the world.

LAVAR: You know, it’s not just a block of frozen ice, it’s sort of, you know, it’s ancient and it’s protected for that reason.

The illegally obtained glacial ice was destined for drinks at an unnamed Santiago nightclub. (Flickr Creative Commons, Rodrigo Álvarez / Rupert)


SRISKANDARAJAH: And like any object old and rare, it’s desirable. In the Jorge Montt harbor where 82 feet of glacier fall into the water everyday, ancient ice is the toast of the cruise ships.

LAVAR: When you reach the glacier, they’ll chip off a bit of the ice and serve you a drink with it - so it’s a bit of a novelty thing.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A novelty that an undisclosed beverage distribution company, currently under investigation in Santiago, wanted to bring to the city ten hours north of the glacier. The black ice market is a new problem in Chile but harvesting glacial ice has been around for a long time. Petersburg, Alaska could be called the town that ice built.

TRAUTMAN: Well, to give you a little history about Petersburg, it’s the reason why we exist.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Victor Trautman teaches glacier science to high school students in Petersburg, Alaska.

TRAUTMAN: When the fishermen got here, they discovered it was easy pickings to get glacier ice so they could cool the fish when they ship it down south to Seattle.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Even after the invention of machines that could make packing ice in hours, the naturally aged variety couldn’t be beat.

TRAUTMAN: Freezer formed ice is about 75 percent the density of water, glacier ice is about 90 percent, which basically means, for a given volume, you literally have more ice, and therefore it can cool more.

Chile’s Jorge Montt Glacier in the northern part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is 4 hours by boat from the nearest town. (From Flickr/CC by Pics of Pancho)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Cools more, melts less, and water frozen 1000 years before the industrial revolution is really clean. You could see why the cocktail crowd would seek it out. Especially considering this ice puts on a show.

TRAUTMAN: Because of the way it forms not only does it have a nice blue tint to it, but it is also really clear. As it melts, every once in a while you’ll see a little bubble escaping, and so it almost looks like it's effervescent.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But there’s a reason why beautiful blue cubes aren’t effervescing in every tumbler. The business of glacial ice has been tried before. It was a fad that crested a quarter century ago. Those who rode the last wave will tell you even where it’s legal, glacial ice is a cold, hard, business.

WILSON: It’s essentially floating rocks, slippery floating rocks.

Car-sized icebergs calve off the LeConte Glacier near Petersburg, AK. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah 2007)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark Wilson was the president of Alaska Mountaintop Spirits, a small bottle water company from Anchorage. The New York Times called marketing glacier ice, “a Hot New Industry,” in 1988. It crowned Wilson the creator of the trade.

WILSON: We couldn’t have been more surprised, but I’m sure there was more than one day where we were scratching our heads, wondering how this all started.

SRISKANDARAJAH: It started as a small publicity stunt. To promote their bottled water, Wilson brought a cooler of the special ice with him on a business trip to Japan. He gave out bottles of his water with a little piece of real, glacier ice. The water was well-received, but the ice gave one Japanese customer the chills.

WILSON: I remember being in a department store and watching a gentleman that was in his 70s or 80s put a small amount of glacier ice into a glass and when you do that the ice starts to crack and fizzle and he put the glass of water up to his ear listening to it and he looked at me and said, in Japanese, ‘that’s the whisper of the ages.’ And from that moment on I realized we had a product we could sell.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Through the late 80’s Wilson’s company hauled tons and tons of icebergs into boats, breaking them into four pound units where he says they’d fetch $7.50 a bag in high-end Tokyo night clubs. But the bubble soon burst. Japan’s economy dipped and too many Alaskan glacial ice startups made the price of ice sink.

WILSON: Then all of a sudden out of the blue the Exxon Valdez more or less decided for us that we were out of that business.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The tanker crashed in the Prince William Sound, not far from where Wilson’s company harvested their ice. It’s been 25 years since he sold his last very old ice cube. But he has some advice if this fad ever crystallizes.

WILSON: I think whoever is going to be in that business will have to understand what that ice really means and make sure that whatever product they produce it’ll have to be sold as a product that has value, value beyond just cooling something down.

Snow compacted over millennia colors glacial ice iridescent blue. A closeup of an iceberg near the LeConte iceberg. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Galileo55)

SRISKANDARAJAH: They’ll have to sell an ice experience that is actually moving.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



Nick Lavars wrote “Chile investigates theft of 5 tons of Patagonian ice” for the Santiago Times

Victor Trautman teaches the LeConte’ Glacier Survey at Petersburg High School

In 1988 the New York Times called marketing glacier ice as “A Hot New Industry”


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