Ice Stupas: Providing Water to the Most Arid Areas

Ice Stupas are artificial glaciers used for storing winter water for use in the arid months when meltwater is scarce.

Ladakh ice stupa credit: Aberdeen University

The Ice Stupa was invented by engineer Sinam Wangchuk in Ladakh, India in 2013. Since then, the Ice Stupa project has grown and received international acclaim.

Shrinking glaciers combined with drier winters, as a result of climate change, have led to frequent and extended droughts, which are now threatening the life-sustaining crops that are cultivated by rural communities in some of the coldest and driest parts of the world.

Related article: Climate Change Contributed to the Uttarakhand Disaster

The Cryosphere and Climate Change research group of the University of Aberdeen, in collaboration with the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi (India), has shown that ‘glacier shrinkage’ in Ladakh, northern India, has increased at a dramatic pace over the last two decades.

For Ladakh, a ‘cold desert’ with very little precipitations, the Ice Stupas have become a lifeline – providing essential meltwater to extend the otherwise very limited crop growing season by several weeks.

Ladakh ice stupa Image credit Aberdeen University

The Ice Stupa concept is not new and could be linked to the ancient, fascinating practice of ‘glacier grafting’ and, more recently, the building of ‘artificial glaciers’, which typically occur at high elevations, far from villages and hence difficult to maintain.

The Ice Stupas are instead built next to where the water is needed most, right on the outskirts of villages, near their fields.

The size and shape of ice stupas make them particularly efficient, inexpensive, and easy to maintain. They can release millions of litres of water each year.

The project is still in its infancy, and more work is needed, from technical aspects, such as ways to avoid water freezing in the pipelines and site selection, to a better understanding of local micro-climates and an improved distribution of water across multiple users and villages.

The University of Aberdeen, funded by the Scottish Funding Council, is working to establish a long-lasting collaboration with the local ice stupa team and academic colleagues in India to provide some of the answers to these questions.

Professor Matteo Spagnolo, of the University of Aberdeen’s Cryosphere and Climate Change Research Group, said:

“Glaciers are exceptionally good and reliable indicators of climate change. Put in the simplest terms, as temperatures rise, glaciers shrink and may eventually disappear. As well as being photogenic, spectacular emblems of climate change, glaciers are also, for many communities, an irreplaceable source of fresh water.

“Our research has shown that mountain glaciers in Ladakh are retreating at an increasing rate, and so it is clear that interventions such as ice stupas are essential.”

Ladakh ice stupa sponsored by University of Aberdeen

Dr Anshuman Bhardwaj, also from the University of Aberdeen team, added:

“We are working closely with our partners in the Ice Stupa project team to help with some of the aspects of the technical and logistical challenges and also looking to better understand the rate of glacier retreat and how this can inform our strategy going forward.”

4 replies »

  1. It’s kind-of like the old Ice-houses……

    The Icehouse in Summer
    Howard Nemerov

    see Amos 3:15

    A door sunk in a hillside, with a bolt
    thick as the boy’s arm, and behind that door
    the walls of ice, melting a blue, faint light,
    an air of cedar branches, sawdust, fern:
    decaying seasons keeping from decay.

    A summer guest, the boy had never seen
    (a servant told him of it) how the lake
    froze three foot thick, how farmers came with teams
    with axe and saw, to cut great blocks of ice,
    translucid, marbled, glittering in the sun,
    load them on sleds and drag them up the hill
    to be manhandled down the narrow path
    and set in courses for the summer’s keeping,
    the kitchen uses and luxuriousness
    of the great houses. And he heard how once
    a team and driver downed in the break of spring:
    the man’s cry melting from the ice that summer
    frightened the sherbet-eaters off the terrace.

    Dust of the cedar, lost and evergreen
    among the slowly blunting water walls
    where the blade edge melted and the steel saw’s bite
    was rounded out, and the horse and rider drowned
    in the red sea’s blood, I was the silly child
    who dreamed that riderless cry, and saw the guests
    run from a ghostly wall, all long before
    the winter house fell with the summer house,
    and the houses of Egypt, the great houses, had an end.

  2. Article could have included a short précis of how the ice stupas are made. I would have been interested in that aspect and how it could be upscale worldwide.

  3. The ideas, honoring the past (which we do so much when describing our survival history, but not put it to deal), the energy, the deed, the proof and the story told.
    Truly respected, globe grasping concept.
    There is so much of technology in our hands to make things faster, but yet, it is in our hands to do and to share same encouragement, rather that sit at warm homes and discuss, until a disaster knocks the door.
    Industries and rocket science does the same around the World.
    Thank you for letting it be known.

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