Growing a Glacier

This year has been a fascinating one for glaciology.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of important discoveries have been made, and are rampant within academic literature. However, the bulk of glaciological developments are often too complex for wider dissemination. Consequently, I relish glaciological tales that manage to permeate more mainstream channels. My favourite exposé this year was The Economist’s article ‘Do-it-yourself glaciers: The iceman cometh’, a re-emergence of National Geographic’s 2001 article ‘”Artificial Glaciers” aid farmers in Himalayas.

In the high Himalaya, glacial and snowmelt are essential to the continued survival of montane peoples. Thus regional ice is critical to sustaining high altitude communities. Well over a billion people, more than 20% of Earth’s population, living in the shadows of the Himalayas are reliant on such meltwater. Bafflingly, little action has been taken to prevent their total disappearance, which is speculated to be imminent unless rising temperatures and other changing climatic variables are abated. Already, 600 glaciers are known to have disappeared throughout the world.

Dr Walter Immerzeel, of the Dutch Utrecht University, led a research team looking into the stability and security of the ‘Asian Water Towers’. They determined that the major Asian river basins, comprising the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, are experiencing a generalised trend of ice wastage. Meltwater is a significant contributor to all these rivers, especially for the Indus and Ganges, with 40% directly feeding in from glaciers. This pattern is expected to persist, with these rivers facing extreme, consistent reductions in peak discharges, during the height of seasonal meltwater influx, by 2046-2065. Resultantly, it is reckoned that the diminishing meltwater supplies will threaten the food security of 4.5% of the peoples within these Asian basins within 50 years. Potentially, 70.3 million face a bleak future of malnourishment and starvation, over and above the present figures of 563 million. This additional 70 million is up to four times the number exterminated by famine during Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forwards’, between 1958-1960, acknowledged as ‘the worst in world history’…so far.

Chewang "The Ice Man" Norphel, retrieved from the Times of India

Despite these utterly demoralising statistics, there are, thankfully, truly inspirational innovators leading a sortie from the mountains. Engineer Chewang “The Ice Man” Norphel of Ladakh has pioneered an incredible and novel method for replacing glaciers; the ‘Do-it-yourself’ approach to glacier growth. Mr Norphel has led the charge to install glaciers throughout his home-province since 1987, seeking to replace many that have already disappeared. As of summer 2013, he had emplaced twelve.

His largest glacier thus far is 300 metres long, 45m wide, and averages 1m deep. This amounts to potentially 13.5 million litres (~3.6 million gallons). This ice-mass sustains 700 people in the village Phuktsey. Per person, the allotment allows an estimated annual stipend of 19,285 litres, sourced from the home-grown glaciers, and is utilised in agriculture, drinking, sanitation, and other essential practices. In comparison, the USGS estimates that the average American utilises 300-380 litres per day. The Ladakhi survive on 13-17% of that, using it sparingly for far more than daily ablutions. To bring this further into perspective, the entire annual allotment of Phuktsey equals 29%, less than a third, of that utilised by The Bellagio’s dancing fountains, in Las Vegas.

Retrieved from Freefever.com and Flickr.com

High-altitude Himalayan agriculturalists have historically been reliant upon small (approximately 1km2) cirque glaciers, which form as precipitation gathers in depressions on shaded, north-facing mountain slopes. Based upon these prerequisite conditions, Mr Norphel formulated his DIY plan. Small streams were diverted towards a series of tiered ponds and channels, where the water is slowed, desilted and then pools in the shade. During the winter months, November to December, the water freezes. Come April, it begins to thaw, and release the stored resource. This cycle is critical to local farming, as the regional agricultural systems evolved to periodically rely upon meltwater, with seed-sowing beginning in April. It is estimated that 80% of Ladakh’s villagers are dependant on glacial meltwaters.

Retrieved from National Geographic

However, the water shortages faced by the villages of Stokmo, Changla, Phuktsey, and other settlements rescued by the Messianic “Ice Man”, are destined to further permeate the Himalayas. In 2010, Croat Valentina Radić and German Regine Hock, of the Universities of British Columbia and Alaska respectively, published findings on the potential of small glaciers to contribute 12cm to sea level rise. They estimated that half of Earth’s smaller ice glaciers (under 5km2) are fated to disappear by 2100, with obviously far-reaching consequences. As a whole ‘High Mountain Asia’, including the Himalayas, is projected to face volumetric reductions of approximately 10%. Between 1975 and 2008, Ladakhi glaciers were found to have variably retreated by 60m (1975-1992), 89m (1992-2002), and 52m (2002-2006).

Ladakh is an area of ~117,000km2, supporting 274,289 (c. 2011). To meet the demands of this population, should all source glaciers waste away, potentially 5.3 billion litres of water would have to be transferred to the region (assuming consumption to be broadly homogenous throughout the region). To address this need locally, more than 390 of the largest artificial glaciers would need to be created. At US$2,000 (~£1,228) per scheme, deployment costs for all of Ladakh could be as little as $780,000 (~£478,000).

In light of this, it is blatant that growing a glacier is a clever stopgap. However, it is by no means the solution to glacier retreat, and the subsequent, seemingly inevitable disappearance. Nor can it prevent the imminent water shortages, and subsequent widespread ripple effect. I applaud Mr Norphel’s efforts, for he is among a handful to successfully implement effective adaptive glaciological schemes. Nevertheless, the slow rate of deployment, relatively limited scale of their impacts, and limited acceptance of the severity of the situation, are likely to prevent their proliferation.

~Breaking Ice

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