Brain Freeze: Desert Ice Bar Is a Strange, Wildly Stupid Idea

An ice bar. A bar made of ice. Why?
An ice bar. A bar made of ice. Why? Tom Barrett/Unsplash
This week, an ice bar will be reopening just east of the Highway 101 and Via de Ventura. In metro Phoenix. In the upper Sonoran Desert. An ice bar. A bar made of ice. A bar glowing the same chemical blue as a cheap bank lollipop, even in the summer. While this may bring a flash of intrigue, we need an ice bar in the desert about as much as we need a lemonade stand on the sun.

The year is 2019. We have known about manmade climate change for a few decades. We also know that the long-term effects aren't as long-term as we once thought.

Again: This week, Polar Play Ice Bar, built into the OdySea Aquarium, will reopen. The ice bar will be chilled to 23 degrees. Not 32 degrees. Not 29 degrees. The bar will operate a full nine degrees below freezing, an arctic pocket humming apart from the world.

We live in North America’s great desert. Come June and July, newscasters will be whispering about highs of 117 degrees. Come high summer, roads will ripple like grill grates. Come the hot season that makes you leak like a faucet, dashboard temperatures will soar above 125 in the shade.

But that’s where we live. That’s the price we pay for those empyrean early fall and early spring months, for living in one of the truly amazing habitats of the world: a desert full of colors, shapes, and life. And yet, as the natural world turns torrid, you’ll now be able to wear a puffy coat and sip neon-striped slushies in a manmade igloo.

Listen: This may be just me, I don't know, but I’d rather bake for 20 minutes a day than go to an ice bar and bake my planet forever.

It's not so much that one ice bar will raise global water levels, putting New York and Miami down with Atlantis. It’s more that the core logic of a single ice bar, profit over environmental sense, is an extreme example of the kind of thinking that keeps us on the wrong track in the first place.

It's an example of the kind of short-sighted, environmentally detrimental behavior that patterns the human past and present. In the relatively short time that Homo sapiens has hunted, gathered, and settled down on this earth, we have immensely changed it. Each year brings fresh records for carbon dioxide levels and temperatures.

Over time, plant and animal species have been extinguished. Mines have spilled into rivers. Dams have stopped rivers. Forests have been cleared. In parts of Asia, where all other fuel has been consumed, people burn animal poop for cooking fuel. Picture someone in Nepal warming rice in a yurt and choking on the dung fumes, while, across the world, a chemical-blue room of coated, gloved, ear-muffed celebrants kick it in a frosty room cooled from 117-degree desert.

The swing between 23 degrees and 117 degrees is not small.

Imagine how much of an unnatural shock your body would get going from desert to ice cap in under 10 heartbeats. Imagine the energy it would take to chill an ice bar by some 100 degrees. Imagine the waste of harnessing that energy for a gimmick. Imagine how bad the drinks must be, and how expensive, at a place that makes use of such a transparent ruse.

Ah, but these foolish ruses — they can be hard to resist.

In the interests of full disclosure, get this: I have been to an ice bar!

It was an ice bar in Rome, and I was 20. A friend and I stopped in for a drink. It was the first drink in a string unspooling into the night. We were given deer-like pelts; we saw our breath. I bit a chip from my cone-shaped “glass,” smooth and stemmed, made of ice.

That glass cradled dark sugar-fire: a blackberry martini. It was probably the most expensive and worst drink I had all summer, a sunburnt run awash in drinks of every kind and color. The only reason I went to the ice bar, which seemed an oddball thing to do even then, was to pretend to ignore a girl I had met in the city, with the aim of attracting her to me. (Stupid, yes, but we’re now married.)

Going to an ice bar in a city with great non-ice bars is a mistake. It is the kind of mistake that you feel in your dark intuition way down is a mistake as you make it. Going to an ice bar in the desert amplifies the severity of your mistake. In both cases, you are crossing a line into complicity.

There is the grave damage that ice-bar logic can cause, sure. But there are other injuries and transgressions.

First, the ice bar is in an aquarium in the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community. Once upon a time, in the Salt River Valley, indigenous tribes like the Tohono O’odham farmed corn, squash, beans, and more. They did so in harmony with nature, in rhythm with rain and sun and seasons. To put something like an ice bar on land once so well-kept feels unsound, especially when an environmentally driven approach is clearly the only way to any deep future.

An ice bar here feels odd, too, in light of nearby Taliesin West. Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned this property with desert living in mind. Never during his life did Taliesin West use air conditioning, for he cooled the property by design: canvas stretched overhead rather than plate glass, which would have magnified the sun; building deeply into the ground, promoting coolness; thick concrete walls, keeping heat at bay. To have an ice bar down the road blasting gelid air into a room so that people can wear parkas in the summer? It makes the area's trajectory feel backward.

Additionally, notably, frustratingly, an ice bar in the desert cuts against all the efforts people in the Valley make toward conservation, sustainability, and general planetary well-being. Whether via solar panels, composting, or maintaining zero-waste kitchens, an ice bar gulping energy like a baleen whale gulps seawater contravenes those other noble, necessary efforts.

“Upon entering into Polar Play you’ll order your drinks, get your parka or faux fur coat and gloves, and step inside a frozen oasis,” reads the website of the ice bar, which lives in the same complex that used to house Dolphinaris — the attraction where four dolphins died. In another place, the ice bar's website is similar, more exuberant: “Everything in the ICE BAR is made of ICE, including the bar!"

Remember that the picture is big. Remember that within the last three years the EPA proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan. Remember, too, that the U.S. announced its short-sighted plans to withdraw from the Paris Accord. Remember, most of all, how many kids will be visiting the newish aquarium, and coming into contact with the idea or reality of the ice bar — kids who should be learning about climate change from better examples, kids who will have to live in a warmer world.

Saying “no” to the ice bar is saying “yes” to the planet.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy