Thieves try to steal thousands of dollars in glacial ice

Living on Earth

Glacial ice from the Jorge Montt glaciar, pictured, was stolen, 5.5 tons worth, in order to make ice for cocktails at a Santiago night club. (Photo by NASA.)

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 some of that glacial ice — a tiny, but incredibly interesting portion — can be found in fancy cocktails.

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, allegedly, braved the elements and broke the law for a chance at the Southern Patagonian ice fields of Chile.

Nick Lavars, a reporter for the Santiago Times, said the thieves are believed to have traveled there by boat, and then loaded ice, piece-by-piece, into refrigerated trucks.  The men are accused of stealing 11,000 pounds of ice from the Jorge Montt glacier — the third largest ice sheet in the world. 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.

"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," Lavars said.

Police say they found $6000 worth of stolen ice. The driver was arrested and charged with 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.

"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," Lavars said.

In the Jorge Montt harbor, 82 feet of glacier fall into the water every day. When you reach the glacier, cruise ships will chip off a bit of the ice and serve you a drink with it. But a beverage company in Santiago is accused of wanting to bring that novelty into town — and hired the men who stole 11,000 pounds of glaciar.

In Petersburg, Alaska, glacial ice has been popular for decades. Victor Trautman, who teaches glacier science to high school students, said the town was formed because it was easy to harvest nearby glacial ice for using in packing and shipping fish.

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

"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," Trautman said.

It's also comparatively clean — having frozen some 1,000 years before the pollutions that contaminated the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

It's also beautiful.

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

Glacial ice peak in popularity 25 years ago but went out of style, old harvesters say, because, well, it's tough work.

Mark Wilson, who was the president of Alaska Mountaintop Spirits, a small bottle water company from Anchorage, said it's like dealing with "slippery floating rocks." The New York Times called marketing glacier ice, “a hot new industry,” in 1988 and crowned Wilson the creator of the trade.

"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," he said.

It started as a publicity stunt to promote their bottled water. Wilson brought a cooler of glacial ice on a business trip to Japan. He gave out bottles of his water with a piece of real, glacier ice. The ice gave one Japanese customer the chills.

Wilson’s company hauled tons and tons of icebergs into boats in the late 80s, breaking them into four-pound units he said fetched $7.50 a bag in high-end Tokyo night clubs. But when Japan's economy tanked, so did Wilson's business. And then the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed and it was over. The tanker crashed in the Prince William Sound, not far from where Wilson’s company harvested their ice.

"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," Wilson said.