As Natural Glaciers Recede, Some Communities Are Building Their Own

On a bright day in the Ladakh Valley, a team of people work on an ice stupa. It is a tall, cone-shaped pile of ice that sits upon snowy ground.
The ice stupa project in Chile was inspired by the original one founded in India, where communities in the Ladakh Valley are using the mini glaciers to get them through the dry months. University of Aberdeen

Glaciers serve as the world’s water towers, with an estimated 1.9 billion people rely on glaciers for drinking water and to irrigate their crops. But since 2015, an estimated 300 billion tons of ice has melted from high mountain glaciers each year, which means they could be gone completely by the end of the century.

People living in the Chilean Andes face dry summers—from December to February—that are only intensifying as the glaciers retreat. Looking for a solution, a team of climate experts plan to build artificial glaciers to provide a constant source of water for folks living high in the mountain range of Cajon del Maipo, report Natalia Ramos and Hugh Bronstein for Reuters.

They plan to build 50 ice stupas, in which abundant water is collected in winter and frozen at night to use in the dry summer months. If successful, the stupas will store more than 25 million gallons of water, enough to sustain 100,000 people for three months.

“We are looking for a solution that actually allows us to protect water for a longer time in the mountain range, and then deliver it to communities downstream,” project director Enrique Gellona tells Reuters.

The project in Cajon del Maipo was inspired by a similar initiative in India’s Ladakh Valley, a region nestled between the Greater Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. In 2013, Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer in Ladakh, invented the first ice stupa as a solution for the extreme droughts plaguing the region, Matteo Spagnolo, a geoscientist at the University of Aberdeen in the U.K. writes in the Conversation.

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Wangchuk and his students used a long pipe to channel water from a stream and pump it down towards the valley. Then, they sprayed the water out of a vertical pipe, creating a fountain. At night, they opened the nozzle, and the water froze as it trickled down to the ground. Ultimately, they built a 20-foot, cone-shaped pile of ice that stored 40,000 gallons of water, Arati Kumar-Rao reported for National Geographic last year.

The 300,000 people living in the Ladakh Valley face similar problems as those in Chile’s Cajon del Maipo: they need water sustain their livelihoods, but changing weather patterns are shrinking the glaciers, intensifying droughts and triggering flash floods. The conditions are so brutal that people are moving out of their homes in Ladakh, Spagnolo writes in the Conversation.

Since Wangchuk invented the ice stupa in 2013, he’s been teaching villagers in Ladakh how to build their own. They built 26 in 2020 nine of which stretched beyond 100 feet tall. Depending on conditions like sunlight and temperatures, stupas can last the entire dry season, National Geographic reports.

Ultimately, Wanchuk and his community are left reeling from a problem they didn’t create. “We have a negligible carbon footprint, but we are bearing the brunt of a changing climate,” he tells National Geographic.

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