How important are the glaciers in the Himalayan mountains? Over a billion people across five countries get fresh water from melting Himalayan glaciers for drinking, agriculture and other uses. What would happen to them if this icy spigot were suddenly turned off … permanently? They may find out within this century as the European Geoscience Union predicts that 70 percent of these glaciers could be gone by 2100. One man says he has a solution … artificial glaciers.
It’s not just an idea … it’s a prize-winning solution from someone whose life depends on these glaciers. Sonam Wangchuk was born in the highland region of Ladakh in India and today is a scientist, engineer and teacher there. In 2015, he came up with a new idea for artificial glaciers. Previous attempts used flat areas of ice for storage which tend to melt too quickly. Wangchuk’s innovation was to minimize the exposed surface area of the ice by stacking it in “artificial glacial ice towers” or stupas – a stupa is a mound-like structure used for Buddhist meditation.
Wangchuk ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a prototype. In Ladakh, he used two-story-high vertical pipes to spray unwanted winter stream water into the air until it froze in a stupa shape. It slowly melted in the spring and summer, releasing 1.5 million liters (396,258 gallons) of meltwater that local farmers used for crops and tree saplings. The stupa stayed frozen until early July.
For this work, Wangchuk won a 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise and a prize of nearly $100,000. With that money, he plans to build 20 ice stupas for a larger tree-planting project in a nearby desert. He will employ local workers and build the stupas so that they are self-sustaining and nearly maintenance-free. He has also been contacted to build one as a tourist attraction in Switzerland that may also be a model for artificial glaciers in the Alps.
Always a teacher, Wangchuk wants his project to teach others to create new solutions to challenging environmental problems.
We Ladakhis are the frontier to face climate change. We have to be resilient, clever enough, innovative enough to adapt to these changes so that our younger generation is ready to survive and flourish in these mountains.
Not just these mountains, Sonam … ALL mountains.