The artificial glacier growing in the desert
Inside the long way north of India, a cold mountain desert is a stunning backdrop to an unprecedented icy structure. This is a land of extremes, where rainfall is scarce and temperatures range wildly from torrid to far below freezing. The locals say it’s the only place in the world where a man, sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade, can suffer sunstroke and frostbite at the same time. Inside the making of Ice Stupas with Sonam Wangchuk in Ladakh.
It is the Ladakh area — meaning “land of high passes” — sandwiched between two of the sector’s tallest mountain tiers, the Himalayas, and the Kunlun. Rainfall is rare here. Water, essential for irrigating the farmlands which are the lifeblood of the local population, mostly comes from melting snow and ice. But climate change is making this land even drier, leaving farmers without water in the crucial planting months of April and May, right before the glaciers start to melt in the summer sun. Ladakh’s Ice Stupa Project – earthrise.
One man’s solution to the problem? Make more glaciers.
The “Ice Stupa”
In 2014 a local mechanical engineer, Sonam Wangchuk, set out to solve the water crisis of the Ladakh. Wangchuk had a simple idea: he wanted to balance this natural deficit by collecting water from melting snow and ice in the cold months, which would normally go to waste and store it until spring, just when farmers need it the most. Then he builds a two-story prototype of an “ice stupa”, a cone of ice that he named after the traditional mound-like sacred monuments that are found throughout Asia.
The ice stupa is created using no power or pumps, only physics: “the ingredients are a downstream, an upstream and a gradient,” says Wangchuk.
First, a pipe is laid underground, connecting a stream of water and the location where the ice stupa is required, usually next to a village. The water must come from a higher altitude, usually around 60 meters or more. Because a fluid in a system always wants to maintain its level, water from 60 meters upstream will spray 60 meters into the air out of the downstream pipe, creating a fountain. The Ice Stupa Project: Artificial Glaciers of Ladakh.
The freezing air temperature does the rest, immediately crystallizing the water droplets into ice that falls right below, forming a cone. The “Ice Stupas” That Could Water the Himalaya.
The revolutionary aspect of the ice stupa is that it works even at low altitude and in very warm temperatures.
How much does it cost to build an ice stupa?
Because of the piping infrastructure required, the initial investment can be steep. Wangchuck estimated he would need around $125,000 to build his first full-scale version, which could reach 80 feet in height and provide irrigation to about 10 hectares of land: “It was too radical for any government to support, but I knew the people of the world would back it,” he says. A frozen dessert: The artificial glaciers of Ladakh.
The ice stupa also netted Wangchuk a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016, which carried a 100,000 Swiss Franc prize (around $105,000).
“We wanted to integrate traditional practices and beliefs with innovative technology because climate change cannot be handled by engineering alone,” he says. “We have to join forces.”