The Icy Heart of the Himalayan Desert

Engineers are coming for Elsa with their seven-foot tall ice towers

For a productive day, we all need a glass of water; a tasteless, odourless, and colourless liquid that holds immense power over our bodies and the world’s ecosystems. Water is the foundation of life, yet we take it for granted. Our current lifestyles increase the carbon footprint and worsen climate change, resulting in the contamination of water supplies and water scarcity.

Situated on water-scarce hilltops, the Himalayas are a water insecurity hotspot. They depend on glacial runoff for water, and as climate change causes glaciers to recede, the flow of water is becoming inconsistent. Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer, scientist, and teacher in the highland region of Ladakh, India, has come up with an ingenious solution – artificial glaciers, or ice stupas

The system is simple, yet sophisticated:

  1. Underground pipes carry water upslope to a spot in the desert, relying entirely on gravity. 
  2. Water flows through the base of the stupa to a sprinkler system. The sprinkling water freezes. 
  3. Piping is added to increase the height and to allow for more ice formation.
  4. A giant structure can be created in just a few weeks, storing more than a quarter of a million gallons of water.

Water that keeps flowing and wasting away is collected and frozen throughout the winter, right next to the village. The ice melts in springtime to supply water for local farmers to irrigate crops and tree saplings. Wangchuk takes advantage of the terrain so the system does not require electricity, maintenance, or shading. Taking up minimal surface area, the ice is less exposed to sunlight and melts at a slower rate. Unfortunately, these communal infrastructures cannot completely replace natural glaciers and should only be viewed as conservation strategies rather than final solutions to climate change, as their efficacy is significantly affected by unpredicted climate patterns, natural hazards and limited community integration.

However, the potential for artificial glaciers remains. Wangchuk won the prestigious 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise in Environment and 2017 Social Entrepreneur of the Year by GQ India. With this well-deserved recognition, his innovation gained interest by international media and was implemented in Switzerland, Skardu, Peru, and Sikkim. 

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