High up in the Trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, India, a local scientist named Sonam Wangchuk is creating artificial glaciers to help farmers facing the growing problem of acute water shortages.
Over the past few decades, glaciers in the region (and in areas around the world) have not frozen sufficiently during the winter months, meaning there is less ice and therefore less meltwater. Many mountain communities rely on glacial melt-water during the dry spring and summer months – including farmers in villages in Ladakh, at around 3,500m above sea level.
The decline in glacial meltwater is attributed to climate change, and according to the European Geosciences Union more than 70% of glacier volume in the Everest region of the Himalayas could be lost by 2100.
Wangchuk – who also teaches at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh Alternative School – initially started his project in the classroom. After a successful crowd-funding mission, he was able to try it out for real – and the results soon caught the attention of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise committee.
By spraying unused water from glacial streams in winter through a network of pipes into freezing air, Wangchuk has created towering 35-40-metre "glaciers" that can store up to 16,000 litres of water. These artificial glaciers work in the same way as natural ones – melting slowly to provide a constant supply of fresh water when it is most needed, in summer.
The artificial glaciers have been called ice ‘stupas’ because of their resemblance to Tibetan religious structures of the same name. Wangchuk believes that the ice stupas are a cost-effective solution to the problem: the biggest expense is the initial installation of pipes, after which the stupas can run unmanned.
Wangchuk was announced as one of the winners of the 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise in Environment, and awarded $104,000 towards the development of his project. He hopes to build a further 20 ice stupas with this prize money.
After Antarctica and the Arctic, the Himalayan region has the next largest deposit of snow and ice in the world. Throughout the mountain range there are an estimated 15,000 glaciers – the largest of the Himalayan glaciers is Siachen, at over 70km long.