One guy in India is taking on the colossal forces of climate change using little more than ingenuity and a few pipes.
Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer, is helping farmers around the icy desert Himalayan highlands of Ladakh in north India by creating artificial glaciers. It sounds crazy but the Ice Stupa Project is delivering results and has even seen Wangchuk win a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016.
Previously, locals relied on melting snow and glacial ice from the surrounding mountains to irrigate their land. This high-altitude area is a cold desert, with temperatures in winter dropped to -30°C (-22°F), and an average annual rain and snowfall of only 10 centimeters (four inches). This scarce water was effectively “stored” in the mountains’ glaciers.
However, rising temperatures from climate change have reduced the amount of melt water during the early spring, a time crucial for agriculture.
The artificial glaciers are formed by piping mountain stream water down the mountains, with no pumps or electricity needed, into a vertical pipe. This spurts out water like a fountain which is quickly frozen by the freezing air temperatures. Eventually, a miniature cone-shaped “mountain” of ice forms. This shape helps the ice melt more gradually and slower, thereby supplying villages downstream with a steady supply of stream water.
“A cone is very easy to make with ice, because any dripping naturally forms a cone underneath – icicles are inverted cones,” Wangchuk told CNN. “It has minimal exposed surface area for the volume of water it contains.”
Wangchuk tested out the idea of the Ice Stupa in at the start of 2014 by creating a prototype glacier six meters (20 feet) high. By mid-March, the natural ice had melted away but the Stupa remained until May 18, even when the temperatures were reaching 30°C (86°F).
“The prototype was built in the warmest possible conditions, so that if it succeeds here then it can succeed anywhere. It was built at the lowest possible altitude in the whole Leh valley… and exposed to sun,” Wangchuk said on the project’s funding page.
The idea of artificial glaciers was started by Chewang Norphel, a fellow engineer from Jammu, but it was Wangchuk who rolled it out across the area using $125,200 collected through a crowdfunding campaign. This money paid for 2.3 kilometers (1.4 miles) of piping to direct glacial streams down to the village desert.
During the first spring, this system delivered 1.5 million liters (330,000 gallons) of meltwater to local villagers and farms. Using his prize money from the Rolex Award, he hopes to create 20 more ice stupas, each 30 meters (100 feet) high.