When Glaciers Melt, Engineers Build Artificial Ones

Artificial glaciers may not serve as a permanent solution to glacial melting, but the technology is still helping subsistence farmers in high mountain ecosystems continue farming with diminishing water supplies, according to a new study from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Pittsburgh.

For the past three decades, certain Himalayan communities have used artificial glaciers, engineered systems that rely on gravity and freezing temperatures to collect and store a seasonal stock of ice in the wintertime. This allows the increasingly water-scarce region to cope during the summertime.

An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India
An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India. (Photo courtesy of Carey Clouse.)

This technology, designed to harvest and regulate water in dry, desert regions that face rapid glacial melting, has been utilized in nine different Himalayan communities since their invention in 1987. During the summertime, the accumulated ice block slowly melts to provide downstream communities a seasonal water supply in the absence of glaciers.  

Scientists and engineers have long written about the promise of artificial glaciers to adapt to climate change. In 2014, GlacierHub published an article about discussions about importing artificial glacier techniques to Oregan to cope with glacial loss.

However, little research exists to substantiate their actualized benefits. The new study aims to fill this gap and show how useful this technology has been and could prove to be in the future.

The study examined six artificial glaciers in the high, dry Himalayan mountains of Ladakh, India, located the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The region, which receives only 100 to 250 mm of precipitation annually, has historically relied on glacier melt water to irrigate its subsistence agriculture crops.

Seventy percent of the region’s workforce depends on farming for their livelihoods. Future glacial melt during the summertime threatens the community’s natural water supply, as well as subsistence agriculture production.

Ladakhi civil engineer Chewang Norphel designed the first artificial glacier in 1987 for the village of Phuksey in North India. He garnered the nickname “Ice Man” after building eleven more artificial glaciers in the region.

The technology usually costs from $6,000 to $22,000 to build, much less than other water infrastructure costs in the area, the study notes.

Artificial glacier design and construction hasn’t yet been standardized, according to the study. Engineers have tested new structures, such as diversion channels, regulator gates, and retaining pools, but continue to test structures through each new project. After their construction, the structures are usually managed by NGOs.

Two locals damming a stone embankment that will serve as an artificial glacier the Ladakh region.
Two locals damming a stone embankment that will serve as an artificial glacier the Ladakh region. (Source: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images.)

Of the six separate artificial glacier sites examined in the study, three were in operation and three were abandoned or not in use. The study aimed to investigate the factors that influenced the artificial glaciers’ respective performances in Ladakh.

The most successful artificial glaciers were located in a north-facing, shaded valley, placed at an altitude of roughly 4,000 meters, and close enough to the village for water access, maintenance, and operation, the study concluded from its six case studies.

The study emphasizes a need for better design and construction of artificial glaciers, as well as more robust management and upkeep. The three artificial glaciers no longer in use failed because of faulty construction or a lack of upkeep, according to the study.

Regardless of their design, artificial glaciers can only serve as a temporary solution to water shortages, the study argues.

“While they may be useful in the short term as a means of stretching the dwindling water resources available to mountain communities, in the long term, artificial glaciers will be vulnerable to the same environmental stresses that impact nature glaciers,” wrote lead author Carey Clouse in an email to GlacierHub.

An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India.
An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India. (Photo courtesy of Carey Clouse.)

Artificial glaciers can only operate with the presence of a natural host glacier. As Indian Himalayan glaciers retreat at a rate of 3.5 percent annually, the region’s more than 2,000 glaciers could disappear within the next few decades. When a glacier disappears, artificial glaciers can no longer be used to trap and regulate water resources.

However, the study still argues for the benefits of well-designed artificial glaciers now and into the distant future. It cites benefits such as providing Ladakhi farmers with greater water control, the ability to maintain subsistence agriculture with lessening water reserves, and the attention the artificial glaciers bring to villages’ water issues.

The study hopes to “stimulate new conversation between the many engineers, villagers, and NGOs working in the region” and to contribute to the growing body of academic research on artificial glaciers.

While artificial glaciers might not be the end-all solution to glacial melt-induced water scarcity, they represent a step forward in using technology to create adaptive, sustainable, and resilient solutions to climate change.

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