Losing your glaciers? Build your own.

by |June 3, 2010

Scientific American has an interesting photo piece by Gaia Vince about a place in the Himalayas that is adapting to climate change by creating its own glaciers.

Ladakh is the highest plateau of Kashmir, north of India, mostly above 9,800 ft, and gets very little rainfall.



The people have depended on runoff from snow and glacier melt for their water, but those days seem to be over.

The author says, “Global warming has hit the region particularly hard. Around the principal town of Leh, most of the glaciers have disappeared in the past 15 years. The snow line has risen more than 150 meters, and remaining glaciers have retreated by as much as 10 kilometers. These glaciers are now at high altitudes, far from the villages, where they don’t produce significant meltwater until May or June.

“The villagers here are particularly vulnerable because they experience such a brief summer. If they don’t plant their one annual crop of barley, peas or wheat by late March, there will be no time for it to mature to harvest before winter begins in September, after which the temperature drops below –30 degrees Celsius.”

As a result, crops were failing and people were becoming desperate.

Retired local engineer Chewang Norphel, working with the Leh Nutrition Project offered a unique solution.  He helped the village of Stakmo to build a series of stone walls that would channel what runoff there was during the winter into areas that were shaded from the sun.  The runoff freezes, creating the artificial glacier, and then melts slowly during the warmer months, when the water is needed for farming.

Stone embankments to stop and direct runoff:


The glacier forms in the shade:

A reservoir was built to further control the meltwater, making sure it wouldn’t be lost:

Irrigation channels directed the water to where it was needed:


The result is water when and where they need it, and successful crops:

Norphel has supervised the construction of 10 glaciers in the region, and the system continues to spread.  As the changing climate forces communities to adapt, clever and effective ideas like this one will be needed around the world.

Read the article and see the slideshow here.  All photos are by Nick Pattinson.

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