Meet the Man who creates artificial glaciers on dry land

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Ladakh’s beautiful mountains and magnificent scenery of exquisite beauty draw tourists from all over the world. But the tourists are not aware about the locals who have to struggle to meet their basic water needs every year.

Following in the footsteps of Chewang Norphel the pioneer ‘Ice-man of India’ who set up more than 10 artificial glaciers in the arid wasteland of Ladakh, Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer, and his team of volunteers are building a gigantic vertical block of ice in Phyang, nine miles from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. When spring comes and the artificial glacier melts, farmers will have flowing water.

Real glaciers are melting. One scientist’s solution is artificial ‘ice stupas’ Image: Rolexawards.com

The ingenious method stores water without the need for concrete water storage tanks or dams. While it won’t stop glaciers from shrinking, it could help people adapt to a warming world.

Last winter, Wangchuk built a six-metre-high prototype on a fully exposed riverbank to test his novel idea. It stored 150,000 litres of water at 3,170 metres, the lowest altitude in Leh valley. This, he said, proved ice pyramids can be built anywhere in the region.

An artificial glacier made in the form of an ice stupa in Ladakh. Photograph: Secmol.org

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 thinks the only way of dealing with the effects of climate change in Ladakh is to build “stupas clubbed with small reservoirs that hold rainwater where it can’t freeze. People say there’s less and less snow, but there’s more precipitation in the form of rain. We need some way of holding water in the high mountains and then form ice stupas. The scope will become smaller if streams have less and less water.”

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.                                                                              

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