Receding Glaciers and Growing Ice Stupas
Updated: Jul 13
As glaciers recede in the Himalaya, communities in Ladakh, India are constructing their own glaciers, known as ice stupas, that can be as tall as 6 meters and store over 2 million liters of water. Climate change has exacerbated water scarcity in Ladakh with receding glaciers and a faster rate of snowmelt. This has prompted the need for innovative approaches for a reliable water supply. Inspired by the basic idea of freezing and melting water, the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) worked on the idea to build ice stupas as a local solution, by the local people, to the global challenges posed by the climate crisis and water scarcity. The solution is unique as it comes from local communities, and builds upon indigenous knowledge and astute awareness of the natural environment.
The hydrology of Ladakh is characterized by limited precipitation and an abundance of meltwater during the winter and a dry summer. Water supplies are crucial during the summer for food production and the ice stupas propose a new approach to tackle this old problem by storing water from the winter months and making it available in the summer. The system is based on storing water in the form of ice, which gradually melts during the summer to ensure access to water.
These majestic ice stupas build on the application and idea of glacier grafting, which has been practiced in some parts of the Himalayas for the past 30 years. However, the process of glacier grafting is unable to provide water for irrigation throughout the summer, as their large surface area causes the ice to melt faster. To circumvent this challenge, ice stupas were designed vertically with a conical shape that limits external surface area and exposure to the sun. This reduces the melting rate and makes it possible for the ice stupas to last for up to 5 summer months between February and June, providing a steady supply of water during the critical summer season.
The ice stupa team has developed a detailed and illustrated manual on ice stupa construction, which addresses the materials required, the steps needed and additional considerations that require deliberations. There are several noteworthy characteristics as they show how the project design considers the full utilization of environmental conditions of Ladakh. Initially, water is diverted from an upstream location through pipes that are placed around 4 to 6 feet underground, this approach utilizes the ground as an insulator and prevents water from freezing while being transported. The water transfer is powered by a hydraulic gradient which causes water to flow down with pressure without any external energy input. Next, the water is released at the ice stupa site, which is built on clayey soil to limit water loss to infiltration. When the released water is exposed to temperatures below 0 °C, it freezes naturally on dead tree branches that provide surfaces for ice formation and structure to the stupa. The ice stupa construction is made possible through the natural environmental conditions of the region making it a nature based solution.