Mining a Norwegian Glacier for Luxury Ice Cubes

Ice cube. © Marc Amoruso
Ice cube. © Marc Amoruso

The World’s Most Wanted Ice Cube: that’s the tagline a Norwegian company is using to market ice cubes carved out of a melting ten-thousand-year-old Norwegian glacier. It plans to sell them to owners of upscale bars in Dubai, London and New York. After all, if you are sipping a $50 7-star cocktail served in a glass made of Swarovski crystal you are not going to want to contaminate your drink with any old grocery store ice cube. You are going to want luxury ice.

At least, this is what Geir Ludvik Olsen is banking on with his Norwegian startup SVAICE. He launched the company in November and wants to make his ice cubes out of ice mined from Norway’s Svartisen glacier. Most glacier ice formed long before the industrial age polluted our atmosphere and our water, so it is presumed to be especially pure. It has been so tightly compressed over thousands of years by the weight of a glacier that it takes forever to melt and won’t dilute your drink. And glacier ice cubes hiss and pop as they melt—they practically sing to you while you sip.

“If you thought you knew what an icecube [sic] could do for you, think again!” the company’s website declares. “We guarantee goosebumps and a memorable moment for those who can find it.” The home page features a pretty average looking ice cube, set against a mysterious curl of white smoke and a background of deep purple shading to black. SVAICE plans to sell around 16 million of the cubes a year in sleek black refrigerated boxes. Olsen says the venture will support the struggling local economy of Nordland county, where the glacier is located. He told the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK his company will provide 60 new jobs. And Arve Knutsen, Nordland County Council advisor for business and regional development,  hopes the ice cubes will put Svartisen on the map for tourists.

Svartisen postcard from 1890s. © Ashley Van Haeften
Svartisen postcard from 1890s. © Ashley Van Haeften

But SVAICE’s plans have drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists, who are not thrilled at the idea of mining a melting glacier to support an energy-intensive and emissions-heavy shipping business. Sigurd Enge, an advisor on Arctic issues for environmental NGO The Bellona Foundation, told Norway’s The Local that a full environmental impact assessment should be required to see how the mining operation will affect the condition of the glacier. Enge also noted that it will require a lot of energy just to keep the product cold as it is shipped around the globe. The World Wildlife Fund’s Secretary General in Norway, Nina Jensen, also spoke to The Local about the project.

“It seems very strange that the government should provide support to mine Svartisen when we know that it is shrinking because of climate change,” she told the publication. “I do not think it is right to create short-term jobs by eating up the last parts of a glacier which is about to disappear.”

SVAICE is getting 250,000 kroner (US $33,000) from Norway’s Nordland County and the Norwegian forestry department to conduct exploratory “drilling” on Svartisen, which will require heavy industrial machinery. Norway’s second largest glacier, Svartisen covers approximately 370 square kilometers of land and sits just 20 meters above the sea. Melting water from the glacier is dammed and used to produce electricity. Between 1999-2009, the outlet glacier at the tail of Svartisen, called Engabreen, retreated 255 meters, according to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. At the terminus, the glacier is melting at an annual rate of 12 meters.

SVAICE’s website claims that the ice it will harvest is “soon-to-be calving” anyway and adds up to “just a cup of water in the ocean.” Those 16 million ice cubes per year are the equivalent of 51.4 seconds of hydropower, the website says. (I reached out to Olsen via email to find out how the company made these calculations, but did not hear back before this post was published.)  SVAICE further promises not to cause “visible wounds” in the natural landscape and asserts that it will use only “green” equipment and renewable energy to run its operations. It also pledges that it will produce no waste or emissions.

Svartisen glacier. ©Anita
Svartisen glacier. ©Anita

“We’ve obtained customers and are talking to a supplier in Dubai. Other world cities such as London and New York could be next,” Olsen told a Norwegian English-language publication The Foreigner. SVAICE has purchased a factory previously owned by bankrupt Norwegian solar power company The Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) and plans to start selling the ice cubes this fall, according to NRK.

SVAICE is not the first to try to make a penny (or a krone) on glacier ice. It’s an industry that has been around for decades. In 1988, the New York Times ran a story about the burgeoning new business Alaska was doing in glacial ice cubes. “Enterprising businessmen, seeing gold in those frozen hills, have created a fledgling industry, marketing glacier ice as an upscale approach to chilling the world’s drinks,” the paper wrote. But these ice entrepreneurs crafted their cubes from icebergs rather than from glaciers. More recently, a Chilean man was arrested for smuggling five tons of ice illegally collected from a protected Patagonian glacier in a refrigerated truck. It remains to be seen how Olsen’s plans to market Norwegian glacier ice will unfold.

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