Alex Bellini is not like you and me. He’s rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, run across the US, and skied across a glacier. Now he's planning his most exciting adventure yet – living on an iceberg for a year.
His project is called Adrift, and it’s pretty ambitious. Bellini is a 38-year-old public speaker from Italy who now lives in Oxford, UK, with his wife and two daughters. He wants to drop a specially designed survival capsule onto an iceberg in Greenland and live inside it for up to 12 months, or until the iceberg flips. Whichever comes first.
Why? Well, Bellini is an adventurer at heart, and he tells IFLScience that he sees this as his next great challenge. He also wants to highlight how climate change is affecting ice sheets, something that’s pretty topical now that a large chunk of the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica has just broken off.
“I’m not in love with Greenland, and I’m not personally in love with ice, even though I was born in the mountains,” says Bellini. “[The reason I’m doing this] is exploring, knowing, trying to understand how you can cope with unpredictable situations.”
Greenland is the ideal location for this project because of the infrastructure there. Bellini has picked a town called Ilulissat as his base, which is located in the North West of Greenland. This is located near an ice sheet, from which new icebergs are constantly being made every day.
Ilulissat also has a helipad and a sizable helicopter that could carry his capsule, and it would provide a good location for his support team. He'll need permission from Denmark, who oversee Greenland, to go ahead with the project. If they say no, he’ll be forced to look at other options like Canada, which don’t have the same infrastructure near new icebergs.
Bellini will travel to Illulisat one winter in the next few years and begin to monitor new icebergs. Ideally, he wants one that’s fairly flat and about 60 square meters (645 square feet) in size that’s already floating in the water. He also needs it to be floating north, so he doesn’t end up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
He’ll monitor the Greenland ice sheet with the help of the Canadian coastguard. Once he’s found a suitable iceberg, he’ll track it for weeks to check which way it’s drifting. If it looks good, he’ll use the helicopter to drop the capsule down. After two days, if the iceberg is stable, Bellini will follow the capsule and begin his adventure.
The capsule, made of aluminum, will be designed by a company called Survival Capsule based in Washington, US. They have been designing these capsules for disaster zones, particularly regions that are vulnerable to tsunamis. The idea is that if people are unable to escape from a tsunami, they could jump inside the sealed capsule and float on the water, riding out the disaster.
“We’re designing a third option [for evacuation], called Shelter in Place,” Julian Sharpe, CEO of Survival Capsule, tells IFLScience. “It’s designed to give people immediate access to safety.”
Bellini had been looking for a suitable habitat when he came across this company, who have built 16 of their capsules so far and have had interest in more, particularly in Japan. They start at about $15,000, and can house between two and 10 people depending on their size, with the upper size being eyed up for Adrift.
Usually, the capsules are mostly filled with seats. Bellini’s capsule, though, would be specifically tailored to him. It would have most of the seats ripped out and replaced with amenities such as a kitchen, a bed, and a desk. There’s also an option for him to have two capsules on the iceberg, one for living and sleeping, and the other for work and exercise or other tasks.
“It’s an interesting project,” said Sharpe. “Because of Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the way things are going, there aren’t many climate-related projects. So I’m impressed Alex is doing it. It’s good to be a part of it.”
Bellini’s capsule will have four windows so that he can see around, and cameras outside too. He’ll also be able to venture outside, keeping himself attached to the capsule with a tether. There’s a good reason for this because at any moment the iceberg could flip. As the iceberg floats, it will gradually be pushed into warmer waters.
When this happens, it will start melting, which will change its center of mass. At some point, the center of mass could change enough that the iceberg will flip over, with the capsule on it and all. This process has been well documented and is rather likely to happen.
So Bellini will need to be prepared. The seats inside the capsule are equipped with harnesses and straps, and once he notices the iceberg is beginning to flip, he’ll need to get himself secured. It’s estimated the flipping processes could take as much as an hour, or be as quick as a few minutes.
What will happen next isn’t entirely clear. Bellini will have enough oxygen to survive for about 10 hours. But the capsule could well become lodged under the iceberg or it could just as easily be thrown into the ocean. In either scenario, a GPS locator inside the capsule will let rescue crews know how to find Bellini. An engine on the capsule could help free it if it gets stuck.
Bellini admits this is a risk. When asked if he wanted to the iceberg to flip, he responded: “The question I would ask you is, do you want to die? I don’t want the iceberg to flip. But I have to be honest with myself and with the team – the iceberg will flip.”
He will be in considerable danger during the adventure, but he’s confident that with enough preparation he’d be safe. Finding the right initial iceberg will be extremely important, and he’ll need to stay in constant contact with his support team.
“I don’t want to risk my life,” he says. “I have a family, two daughters. I want to see my daughters become adults. So I have to keep this in mind because I don’t want to attempt suicide. That’s why I have postponed this adventure for years. Because I have never had a good chance to survive.”
What he’ll actually do on the iceberg is an open question. “It will be very boring,” he says. “I will be very happy to run some research for any departments or universities. [But] if you have any ideas, please share them with me!”
Every step outside the capsule will be a “step into the unknown”, so he will try to spend as much time inside the capsule as possible. He will keep his body and mind fit by doing exercises and yoga, and also make videos and take pictures. It will, though, be a solitary life. “This adventure is my first where nothing will happen,” he says.
Bellini had originally hoped to begin the adventure by winter 2018. He says that funding issues are now hampering progress, with the adventurer still needing to raise more than $500,000. But he hopes that he’ll find some investors or supporters that can back the project and make it a reality.
“If I was a train, I would say that I’m on the rails and I’m out of track,” he said. “So I’m hoping to get this carriage back on track and keep moving.”
He’s also had a lot of interest from organizations and universities, who no doubt see this as a prime opportunity to conduct unique research. No one has ever lived on an iceberg before.
That in itself poses some challenges. In Greenland, icebergs are considered almost sacred, “like a holy cow in India,” says Bellini. To legally be allowed to actually live on one, he will need permission from Denmark. He’s confident they’ll say yes but must wait until he has funding so that they take his application seriously.
“I want to submit a new application the year I’m sure this will go ahead,” Bellini says. “Otherwise they could think that I’m joking.”
(Note, we’ve asked the Government of Denmark to explain the process for doing this. They have not yet responded. Bellini says they will let him do it if he supplies them with proof he will be safe, a reason for doing this, and a scientific purpose.)
The next step now is getting money. Bellini is looking at how to raise funds, such as getting in touch with a philanthropist. If he gets enough, and he gets formal approval, he’ll need to actually find a suitable iceberg. All of this is no easy feat.
“No one has ever dared live on an iceberg,” says Bellini. Perhaps he can be the first.