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Ice towers in the desert: the artificial glaciers of Ladakh

3 min read

Better Society
Ice towers in the desert: the artificial glaciers of Ladakh
Source: RolexAwards.com

To solve water problems in a cold desert, an Indian engineer came up with an award-winning idea: freeze millions of litres of water into ‘ice stupas’.

Vertical glaciers called ‘ice stupas’ are overcoming water shortages for Himalayan farmers

Indian engineer Sonam Wangchuk is helping farmers in the arid Himalayan highlands of Ladakh to overcome water shortages by tapping meltwaters to build giant artificial glaciers called ‘ice stupas’.

Lifesaving Ice Pyramids Sonam Wangchuk is an engineer who has come up with an innovative way to provide fresh water to villages in Ladakh, one of the high-altitude deserts in the world located in the Himalayas. Source: Youtube/MashableNews

The prototype lasted until July, supplying 1.5 million litres of meltwater to 5,000 saplings

In spring, farmers who live at 3,500 m in the trans-Himalayan mountains of Ladakh face acute water shortages. Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk’s ingenious solution is to freeze glacial meltwater into towering conical mounds resembling Tibetan religious stupas. These ice stupas behave like mini-glaciers, slowly releasing irrigation water for the growing season.

Wangchuk’s design builds on the experimental work of fellow Ladakhi engineer Chewang Norphel, who created flat artificial glaciers. Wangchuk realised, however, that a workable structure must have a minimal surface area to provide protection from the sun, especially at lower altitudes. Thanks to this design, ice stupas melt at a slower rate than flat ice. 

The 2015 prototype, the result of a crowdfunding campaign that paid for a 2.3 km (1.43 mile) pipeline to direct glacial streams down to the village desert, lasted until early July, supplying 1.5 million litres (400,000 gals) of meltwater to 5,000 saplings planted by locals.

Source: RolexAwards

To make the water reach the full height of the vertical stupa, a pipe is joined from a higher up-stream and adjusted manually according to the size of the stupa. As water always maintains its level, it reaches the tip of the pipe. As the fountain flows down from the tip, it converts into ice due to the low air temperature outside, freezing in a conical form.
No electricity is used to pump the water to a higher level To make the water reach the full height of the vertical stupa, a pipe is joined from a higher up-stream and adjusted manually according to the size of the stupa. As water always maintains its level, it reaches the tip of the pipe. As the fountain flows down from the tip, it converts into ice due to the low air temperature outside, freezing in a conical form. Source: icestupa.org

What is an ‘Ice Stupa’ and how does it work?

“I saw the problems these people were facing. The artificial glaciers were built at a very high altitude and villagers or workers were reluctant to climb so high. I wondered why we couldn’t construct glaciers right there in the village. The temperature is low enough to keep the water frozen – we just needed a smart way to make these glaciers,”  says Wangchuk.

“I observed that for the spring sun and winds to melt the ice, they needed large surface areas. So if we reduced the area exposed to the sun and wind, then the ice could be stored in the village itself, thus eliminating the need for villagers to climb the mountains,”  Wangchuk told Shreya Pareek, for The Better India.

So instead he came up with the idea of constructing cones of ice vertically towards the sun, thus there will be considerably less surface area exposed to the sun and it will melt slower.

“For example, one ice stupa of 40 m height and 20 m radius would store roughly sixteen million litres of water. If the same amount of water was frozen as a flat ice field 2 m thick, the area exposed to sun would be roughly five times more. Therefore, the sun and the warm spring winds would melt it roughly 5 times faster,” Wangchuk explains.

They named the project ‘Ice Stupa’ because the shape of the glacier resembled the traditional stupas, or Buddhist shrines, of Ladakh.

Watch below, a short film by Rolex about the project.

Source: TheBetterIndia

Sonam Wangchuk, Rolex Awards Laureate, 2016, explains… With breathtaking views and scenery, Sonam Wangchuk explains all you need to know about the Rolex Award-winning Ice Stupa Project. Source: Youtube/RolexAwardsForEnterprise
With his Rolex Award funds, Sonam Wangchuk intends to create up to 20 ice stupas, each 30 metres high, and initiate a substantial tree-planting programme on the desert near their school once the new water supply system is established.
Sonam Wangchuk — 2016 Laureate (Environment), Rolex Awards With his Rolex Award funds, Sonam Wangchuk intends to create up to 20 ice stupas, each 30 metres high, and initiate a substantial tree-planting programme on the desert near their school once the new water supply system is established. Source: RolexAwards.com
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