Discussions about climate change tend to focus on low-lying areas, like coastal cities. Yet people who live at higher elevations also feel its negative effects — including fresh water shortages. To help these folks get by, a Ladakhi inventor named Sonam Wangchuk has created a line of artificial glaciers. Called “ice stupas,” they’re storing frozen water so it can be used to hydrate crops in the driest stretch of the year.
Glacial meltwater is a necessity for most villages in Ladakh. A region of northern India, Ladakh sits on the Tibetan Plateau between the Karakoram and the Himalayan mountain ranges.
This elevated terrain is world-famous for its ice supply. Indeed, the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains contain more ice than any other non-polar area on Earth. Much of this is stored up in glaciers, which help feed vital Asian waterways like the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus rivers.
Unfortunately, those glaciers are receding because of climate change. Between 2003 and 2014, the ones located near the Brahmaputra River’s source lost 6.9 billion cubic miles (28.8 billion cubic kilometers) of ice.
With glaciers, some seasonal melting is expected. But normally, winter snowfall allows glaciers to replace the melted ice they lose during the springtime. However, across the plateau, glaciers are no longer getting enough annual snowfall to offset their lost water. And so many of them have been dwindling in size.
As a “cold desert,” the Ladakh area sees very little rainfall, receiving an average of just 2 to 3 inches (50 to 70 millimeters) per year. The summer months of June through August do get a modest amount of precipitation, however. That’s also when a large quantity of melted water from neighboring mountain glaciers enters the streams Ladakh depends on.
A steady waterflow fills the streams during the winter as well. Yet because of the frozen ground and low air temperatures, the farmers can’t grow crops during the coldest months of the year. According to Wangchuk, winter water gets underutilized as a result.
Demand for meltwater grows exponentially in April and May, when the life-sustaining crops of wheat, buckwheat and barley need to be sown and hydrated. But in the springtime, before the glacial water arrives in force, the streams often run dry.
Climate change has worsened the problem. A 2017 study found that, over the past six decades, about 20 percent of the permanent ice reserves in Ladakh’s Indian home state have disappeared. That translates to less meltwater for the locals.
Towers of Ice
Hoping to solve Nadakh’s water woes, civil engineer Chewang Norphel devised an innovative reservoir system in the 1980s. Using dams and channels, Norphel diverted large volumes of glacial water into man-made lakes on the shady sides of mountains, where it froze into blocks. Come springtime, the ice would melt and be sent downhill to farms and villages by way of canal. But this ice melted too quickly, so the water tended to run out before the summer rains arrived.
In 2013, Wangchuk deduced that the ice in Norphel’s dams melted so fast because too much of it was exposed to direct sunlight. If Wangchuk could somehow freeze the ice into a conical tower—with the narrow end aimed skyward — much less surface area would be exposed.
To make his frozen stalagmites, Wangchuk devised an irrigation system that’s brilliant in its simplicity. The major component is a long pipeline. Most of this is buried deep underground, with one end tapping into a glacial stream or naturally occurring reservoir high in the mountains. Through the tube, the water rushes in the direction of populated areas at lower altitudes.
No moving parts or electrical gizmos are needed to keep the liquid H2O flowing; gravity does the trick. It also pushes the water into the final stage of its journey. Downhill, the pipeline connects at a sharp angle to another, narrower pipe that rises out of the soil, standing vertically like a telephone pole.
As the saying goes, water seeks its own level. Gravity naturally propels the liquid straight up until it flies out of a sprinkler on the pipe’s raised tip. High in the air, the spray encounters atmospheric temperatures in the ballpark of -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) or lower. Before landing, it freezes solid, forming a large cone of ice around the vertical pipe.
The cone’s distinctive shape resembles that of a stupa, traditional Buddhist prayer monuments that’ve graced Ladakh for thousands of years. Hence, Wangchuk and his associates have taken to calling the new glacier-like structures “ice stupas.”
Ladakh’s ice stupas melt down in late spring — right when the need for liquid H2O is greatest. The prototypical stupa erected in the winter of 2013 contained 39,625 U.S. gallons(150,000 liters) of frozen water and lasted until May 18, 2014.
Since then, numerous others have been constructed. One stupa built near the village of Phyang watered 5,000 newly planted trees. Standing 60 feet (18 meters) tall, it held a breathtaking 528,344 U.S. gallons (2 million liters) of frozen water. Others may someday exceed 100 feet (about 30 meters) in height and hold 2,641,720 U.S. gallons (10 million liters) of water.
Outside of India, the stupas have spread to countries like Switzerland. In 2016, Wangchuk’s icy brainchild earned him a coveted Rolex Award for Enterprise.
Mind you, ice stupas are not without their critics. Wangchuk and company’s legal right to divert glacial meltwater has been challenged by a group of Ladakhi villagers. Furthermore, although the stupas are meant to help sustain human life, they won’t reverse the Tibetan Plateau’s worrisome climate trends.
But if Homo sapiens is to survive on a changing planet, we’ll need to reevaluate the ways we use and store water. Projects like this can kick-start those conversations.
The Tibetan Plateau has the distinction of being the world’s highest and largest. It’s got an average altitude of over 14,763 feet (4,500 meters) above sea level and covers 604,000 square miles (1,565,000 square kilometers). Small wonder this plateau has been nicknamed “the roof of the world.”