Study Assesses Efficacy of Artificial Glaciers in Alleviating Water Scarcity in Ladakh, India

This month, Regional Environmental Change published a study that analyzes the “socio-hydrology” of the artificial ice reservoirs, commonly called “artificial glaciers,” of Ladakh, a high mountain region located in the area known as the Trans-Himalaya. The study assesses the effectiveness of these structures as a strategy of adaptation to seasonal water shortages and to the effects of climate change on the glaciers of the Himalaya, which the Ladakhi rely on for water to irrigate agriculture.

Why Artificial Glaciers?

Ladakh has always experienced seasonal water scarcity, according to Marcus Nüsser, a co-author of the study. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “Water scarcity issues are frequent and an annual phenomenon in Ladakh because of the complete dependence of irrigated agriculture from meltwater, especially from the glaciers.” Since the glaciers reside at a much higher altitude than the villages, “the meltwater from these water sources comes quite late in the year. And so there’s a regular problem of severe water scarcity every year in those months when sowing of the cultivated plants starts,” that is, in early spring.

Climate change has increased water shortages in mountain regions worldwide, according to another study published last month. Artificial glaciers help to alleviate seasonal water shortages by storing meltwater from winter months in ice structures at an altitude lower than the natural glaciers and higher than the cultivated fields. There are several different types of artificial glaciers, which are described later in this article. Due to their lower altitude, these stores of ice melt earlier than the natural glaciers, “providing irrigation just in time for the start of the agricultural season,” as Nüsser writes in his chapter of the 2016 book Ethnic and Cultural Dimensions of Knowledge, titled, “Local Knowledge and Global Concerns: Artificial Glaciers as a Focus of Environmental Knowledge and Development Interventions.”

Artificial glaciers provide water right when farmers need it for irrigation. (Source: Marcus Nüsser)

How They Work

Constructed ice reservoirs, along with water management systems, have long been in Ladakh’s technological repertoire. According to Nüsser’s chapter of Ethnic and Cultural Dimensions of Knowledge, Ladakh “has a long history of water harvesting and community management of water resources.” This history includes tanks for storing meltwater, called zings, as well as an official called a Chudpon who “ensures equitable distribution of water.” The chapter notes the practice of “birthing glaciers” by placing pieces of glaciers in caves at high altitudes found in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan. The Regional Environmental Change study further mentions the tradition of “snow harvesting,” which involves building small barrier walls.

Since then, four types of modern ice reservoirs have been developed, as identified by Nüsser and his coauthors:

The types of ice reservoirs, as identified by Nüsser and his coauthors (Source: Regional Environmental Change)

Basin structures store ice similarly to how traditional zings store water. While zings are generally built around the same level as fields, basins for ice storage are located at altitudes higher than cultivated fields so that water can freeze. The advantage of ice basins over zings, and the advantage of ice reservoirs over water reservoirs, is that evaporation is minimized and so more water is retained.

A second type of ice reservoir involves building a sequence of loose rock walls into a river. This slows down water velocity enough that the water freezes in layers. This type of structure, called a “cascade,” was first created in 1987 and was the first structure to be called an “artificial glacier.”

A third type of artificial glacier diverts stream water to freeze in small, shaded side valleys. This strategy also relies on reducing the velocity of river water.

The most recently developed type of artificial glacier, the Ice Stupa, was highlighted in a New Yorker photo essay last month. An Ice Stupa uses piping to divert stream water. The water is shot upwards through a sprinkler and freezes in vertical layers in a conical structure that resembles Buddhist stupas. Due to their vertical shape, ice stupas have less surface area exposed to sunlight, and so they can reside at altitudes as low as the villages themselves while remaining frozen through the winter. A challenge of the Ice Stupa, Nüsser told GlacierHub, is that since they rely on pipes, “they need a relatively sophisticated intake system that is not blocked during the cold seasons.” Developed by Sonam Wangchuk, the Ice Stupa won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016.

Reception of Ice Reservoirs

Ice reservoirs are not always successful, according to Nüsser and the recent study. Success depends on “the situation during the wintertime, whether or not ice accumulation is successful,” Nüsser told GlacierHub. The study cites “high inter-annual climatic variability, frequency, and duration of freeze-thaw cycles together with variances in design” for this irregularity.

Further, Nüsser explained, artificial ice reservoirs are only implementable in a very specific environment–that is, a “cold, arid environment… where you have extremely low temperatures during the wintertime because of the high altitude, the position, and where you have on the other hand a very arid situation.” A local climate must include “frequent freeze-thaw cycles to have the successful formation of large quantities of ice. That’s why you cannot use such systems in every area where you have irrigated cultivation.” Still, there are enough places that meet this description that ice reservoir technology has the potential to spread to other locations. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “I’m sure there are possibilities to transfer this technology, for example, to other trans-Himalyan regions,” and possibly to “parts of Bolivia, maybe, parts of Peru, or northern Chile.”

However, as Nüsser and his coauthors point out, support for ice reservoirs is not unanimous. Storing meltwater in the form of ice to service upstream communities in Ladakh deprives downstream communities of this water. According to the study, “There have been protests against the [Ice Stupa] project as it abstracts water from the main stream, thereby reducing water availability for downstream communities and households.”

Presented as an appropriate method of adaptation to global warming, artificial glaciers have received considerable attention. The home page of the website for the Ice Stupa Project reads, “Join Ladakh as it gears up to fight climate change and melting glaciers.” The Regional Environmental Change study observes that although the Ice Stupa Project was the costliest ice reservoir initiative to date, the project was able to receive its funds through crowdsourcing by “promoting these structures in the context of global climate change.”

The authors of the study, though, do not see artificial glaciers as an appropriate method of adaptation to climate change. Nüsser reasonably suggests that the term “artificial glacier” be jettisoned in favor of “artificial ice reservoir.”

“It’s not really a glacier,” Nüsser told GlacierHub. “It’s just a seasonal storage of water in the form of ice to increase meltwater availability in the early season.” Unlike natural glaciers, ice reservoirs only remain frozen for part of the year, and so ice does not accumulate from year to year. “They can not replace the natural glaciers,” he said.

His study, of course, echoes this conclusion: “It is important to see them as site-specific water conservation strategies rather than climate change adaptation, which is neither their original function, nor something they are likely to accomplish.”

Although they do not match the expectations that the term “artificial glacier” may raise, artificial ice reservoirs do, overall, succeed in supplying much needed water to farmers at a critical point in the growing season, according to Nüsser and the study. Storing ice in these structures “helps the farmers to increase the number of irrigation cycles for the cultivated fields.” The aid in water supply allows farmers to “cultivate cash crops like potatoes, in the case of Ladakh, and they can make some more income from these agricultural productions.”

Ice reservoirs alleviate water shortages in upstream communities in the short term, the study concludes, but these ice structures will not slow the effects of climate change on natural glaciers. If glaciers disappear, then there will be no meltwater to be stored in the artificial ice reservoirs. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “In the context of global warming, we have to imagine a time when there is no meltwater available.” For now, though, these artificial ice reservoirs help the farmers of Ladakh and provide an example of creative adaptation to immediate strains caused by global warming.

This artificial glacier resides above the village of Igu in Ladakh. (Source: Marcus Nüsser)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: Work Inspired by John Ruskin

Project Pressure Exhibition Explores Climate Change and Glaciers

Roundup: UNESCO Sites, Artificial Glaciers, and Alexander von Humboldt

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GlacierHub News Report 08:23:18

GlacierHub News Report 08:23:18

The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week’s newscast is special because managing editor Ben Orlove is joining our newscast. We will be presenting stories ranging from the IPCC to glaciers in Russia to a tradition of citizen climate science and even controversial lands in India.

 

This week’s news report features:

 

Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in China

By: Ben Orlove

Summary:

The authors of a major IPCC report on oceans and the cryosphere gathered in Lanzhou, China, in July 2018. They discussed the reviews which the first draft of the report had received. They also planned the next steps to advance the report.

Read more here.

 

Debris-Covered Glaciers Advance in Remote Kamchatka

By: Andrew Angle

Summary: On the remote Kamchatka Penisula in Eastern Russia, most glaciers are retreating due to climate change. However, in one area, some glaciers have advanced due to volcanic debris on top of the ice that has limited melting.

Read more here.

 

Amid High-Tech Alternatives, a Reckoning for Iceland’s Glacier Keepers

By: Gloria Dickie

Summary: It may be one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. With Iceland’s glaciers at their melting point, these men and women— farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge— serve not only as the glaciers’ guardians, but also their messengers.

Read more here.

War Against Natural Disasters: A Fight the Indian Military Can’t Win

By: Sabrina Ho

Summary: Ladakh is frequently exposed to floods and landslides when snow and glaciers melt. A recent paper warns of the current nature of a military-led disaster governance, including heavy military presence, in disaster risk reduction.

Read more here.

 

Video Credits:

Presenters: Ben Orlove and Brian Poe Llamanzares

Video Editor: Brian Poe Llamanzares

Writer: Brian Poe Llamanzares

News Intro: YouTube

Music: iMovie

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War Against Natural Disasters: A Fight the Indian Military Can’t Win

A sensitive Himalayan ecosystem and community vulnerable to threats— both natural and human-caused— lies along the Indian border region of Ladakh, bordered by Pakistan and China. For one, ongoing military tensions necessitate a permanent presence of the Indian army in the region. Ladakh is also badgered by natural disasters, with local inhabitants affected each year by floods and landslides, especially during the spring and summer months when snow and glaciers melt. Despite the region’s exposure to these natural hazards, national security remains the top priority, with the region relying on military-led disaster governance. A recent study reveals that disaster risk reduction is often slow or even absent in Ladakh due to its ongoing status as a conflict and military-tense zone.

GlacierHub spoke to the lead author of the paper, Jessica Field, from the Jindal School of International Affairs in Jagdishpur, India, about disaster governance in Ladakh. In the current era of climate change, the region’s glaciers are retreating, causing floods and threatening livelihoods. Field commented that the issue of flooding is well-recognized in the region and that there have been various efforts over the years to limit the impacts of natural disasters.

“Perhaps the most famous are those of the Ice Stupa project by engineer Sonam Wangchuk and the artificial glacier work of Chewang Norphel, which have been designed primarily to meet the water needs of the region,” she said. ”But engineers are also working on them to prevent flood risk from overflow.”

Ice Stupa Project
Ice Stupa Project was the winner of the 2018 Rolex Award for Enterprise (Source: Interesting Engineering).

The effectiveness of such local intiatives is often limited, because they are solo projects spearheaded by individuals without sustained financial and institutional support. In addition, they tend to be pioneered as solutions to water shortage, for example, rather than solutions to disaster risk. As such, these developments do not regularly feature in the discussions or plans focused on disaster risk, which are much more response-focused than disaster mitigation-focused.

Two key issues in the disaster management governance of Ladakh were highlighted in the study. For one, natural disasters are often framed by the government as extraordinary events. As a result, data and experiences are not systematically recorded.

“De-exceptionalising hazards and disasters is the first step to effectively preparing for them,” Field told GlacierHub.

Historical record of disasters are inadequate, which is problematic when it comes to learning from past crises and improving community coping strategies. It limits our understanding of how hazards figure into the daily lives of communities that live in vulnerable environments, such as communities at the high altitudes of the Himalayas.

Secondly, “there must be a shift from a reactive, hazard-centred approach (where the army seems the natural lead) to a more proactive approach,” Field said.

Locals felt that the response displayed by the military and the local population during the onset of a disaster, such as the cloudburst event in 2010, were “reactive, adhoc and largely insufficient,” the paper notes.

2010 Ladakh Floods on GlacierHub
Aftermath of the 2010 Ladakh Floods. Note the wreckage due to poor quality construction materials (Source: Bindu/WordPress).

Despite the development of a Disaster Management Plan by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in 2011, the local community remains ill-prepared. Although good practices to effectively deal with disasters in the future are proposed, it has not been translated to action to reduce the loss of lives and damage to property. Illegal construction using non-resilient materials is still carried out on flood-prone areas, flood mitigation projects are left uncompleted, and local knowledge of evacuation remains limited without a formal, village-level assessment of vulnerability.

Offering her insights on disaster risk management and governance, Field told GlacierHub that the plan needs to “one, focus on longer-term preparedness led by the community and civil society; two, account for vulnerability and the wider social dynamics of a region; and three, systematically record data and experiences of crises to inform future disaster risk reduction efforts.”

However, the process of reducing disaster vulnerability in Ladakh does not come easy. Previous studies have warned of the maladaptive forces of modernization, urbanization and globalization in spurring unsustainable and non-disaster resilient infrastructure. The current nature of disaster governance in the region, including the heavy military presence in Ladakh, needs to be considered.

As a securitized zone, which is similar to the Siachen Glacier region GlacierHub has previously reported on, many of the villages within Ladakh are classified as “Protected Areas,” requiring special government permits for access. Humanitarian actors and aid organizations are often unable to gain clearance to work in these areas, even during emergency situations. This situation stems back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War when civilian interference was seen as a major cause of India’s defeat.

Leh Ladakh on GlacierHub
City of Leh in Ladakh with glacier-covered mountains in the background (Source: Pradeep S. Kadam/Pinterest).

Many of the “Protected Areas” still have heavy military presences, even under civilian governance and emergency-preparedness activities. It is thus unsurprising that the emergency-focused elements of the military strategy for Ladakh also focus overwhelmingly on reactive and rescue, rather than risk production, which Field suggests in her paper have the hidden motive “to gain the trust and cooperation of the local population and legitimize their continued presence.”

Based on her other research with Dr Ilan Kelman, Dr Kavita Suri and Dr G.M. Bhat, Field thinks that environmental hazards in the region do not create or resolve conflicts. However, where climate change and hazards exacerbate the vulnerabilities of a population, then (depending on the political context) there can be a risk of conflict escalation and/or increased securitization in the area. Notably, this does not come from the environmental change in and of itself, but rather from the dynamics of the response and the support (or lack of) for recovery and reconstruction.

Field suggests that potential securitization risks from environmental change in Ladakh could involve an increase in environmentally-induced internal migration from the surrounding region. This is not a threat in and of itself, but the central or state government may seek to further expand their security apparatus in Ladakh, given the political dynamics of the state.

“With increased hazards, we are also likely to see the expansion and entrenchment of the military in the area, who are seen as the most appropriate primary responders,” Field added.

 

 

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Roundup: Sustainable Development, Recovering Glaciers, and Disaster Governance

Global Assesment of Sustainable Mountain Development

From Mountain Research Institute: “The MRI is collaborating with the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) to develop an approach for assessing sustainable mountain development using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework. It is expected that this approach will help contextualize and highlight the specific needs and challenges faced in mountain areas, and inform policy and decision-making at all levels…The results of this project will be published as an issue brief in the fourth quarter of 2018. A session dedicated to the presentation of this issue brief will take place at the upcoming World Mountains Forum 2018, to be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in October.

Read more about the event here.

Andes Mountains
High mountain ecosystems like the Andes in Peru are extremely vulnerable to climate change (Source: David Stanley/ Creative Commons).

 

Holocene History of the Helheim Glacier

From Quaternary Science Reviews: “Helheim Glacier ranks among the fastest flowing and most ice discharging outlets of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS)… We present the first record of direct Holocene ice-marginal changes of the Helheim Glacier following the initial deglaciation. By analyzing cores from lakes adjacent to the present ice margin, we pinpoint periods of advance and retreat… Helheim Glacier’s present extent is the largest since the last deglaciation, and its Holocene history shows that it is capable of recovering after several millennia of warming and retreat.”

Read more about the research here.

Coring platform and sediment core retrieved from the Niflheim Plateau. A) The inflatable coring platform in use on Lake 297. B) A sediment core (HG309b) retrieved from Lake 309 (Source: Bjork et al.)

 

Impact on Disaster Governance in Ladakh, India

From International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction: “The Indian border region of Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir State, has a sensitive Himalayan ecosystem and has experienced natural hazards and disasters of varying scales over the decades. Ladakh is also situated on a fault-line of multiple tensions, including ongoing border disagreements and intermittent conflict with China and Pakistan. This paper examines the implications of the intersection of these environmental and security factors for disaster governance in the region. This case study provides important insight into why disaster risk reduction has been slow or absent in conflict zones.”

Read more about the research here.

Taglang La mountain pass in Ladakh (Source: Creative Commons).

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Video of the Week: Intense Landslide in India

Last month in northern India’s remote Nubra Valley, a video captured stunning moving debris flow from a potential glacial event, like a GLOF. At a high altitude of 10,000 feet (or 3,048 meters above sea level), Nubra Valley is tucked in the northeast part of the Ladakh district, surrounded by Pakistan, Tibet, Xinjiang Province of China, and India’s Himachal Pradesh. As one of two valleys in Ladakh, Lonely Planet described Nabra as “a tuft of land of the very scalp of India” and home to the heavily glaciated peaks of the Karakoram Range, including the contested Siachen Glacier and two major rivers.

Heavy rainfall is a typical trigger for landslides, but as weather conditions were fair at the time, it seems more likely the region’s sensitive glacier systems may be the cause. Recently, the relationship between melting glaciers, particularly permafrost and landslides has been studied in Alaska, and one recent study concluded climate change is expected to cause larger and more frequent avalanches due to the melting permafrost.

For more information on how climate change may create unstable conditions around glaciers, GlacierHub recently covered this topic.

 

Read more glacier news from this week:

Off with the Wind: The Reproduction Story of Antarctic Lichens

The Struggle for Water in the Andes

Roundup: Religion, Economic Impacts, and Glacial Recession

 

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Elderly Wisdom and Youth Action in Ladakh

People of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent live in one of the highest locations in the world, the Ladakh region of northwestern India. Ladakh extends over 45,000 square miles and includes the Ladakh mountain range, which is part of the glaciated Karakoram Range of south-central Asia. Many in the Ladakh region are Buddhist and believe in good moral conduct such as generosity, righteousness and meditation. This goodwill extends to the glaciers, which they respect and value.

The Global Workshopa project that allows students to create original work that thinks critically about science and development, recently created a video in which young people from Ladakh interview their elders about climate change and its impacts on the glaciers. In the video, the grandparents remember a time during the mid-20th century when streams were full, glaciers were more robust, and snowfall was heavy. Now, farms in the agricultural areas are suffering because of a decrease in glacier meltwater for crop production.

“Himalayan Elders on Climate Change” (Source: The Global Workshop/YouTube).

In a paper titled “Glaciers and Society,” Karine Gagné, a postdoctoral associate of cultural anthropology at Yale University, and her colleagues, discuss some of the approaches used by locals to counter the impacts of receding glaciers.

Construction of a new 30-meter artificial glacier (Source: Rolex Awards).

Gagné spent a fair amount of time working in Ladakh observing everyday life and climatic changes. She told GlacierHub that in certain communities in the region, people depend on specific glaciers, have named them accordingly, and undertake specific actions to protect them.

In the paper, Gagné et al. discuss Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer in Ladakh who created artificial glaciers to harvest snowmelt and rainwater. Norphel’s project brought attention to the plight of farmers who use meltwater for agriculture. It has since been replicated by the younger generation.  

Still, receding glaciers have translated into water scarcity in some Ladakhi villages. Water is a pressing issue because villagers rely on snowfall in the spring to sow their crops. Elders have prayed to mountain deities that their glaciers will provide water in the spring. 

Irrigation from snowmelt in Ladakh (Source: Nevil Zaveri/Creative Commons).

Gagné explained that glaciers are “embedded in the local culture and religious views.” People believe, for example, that there is a guardian deity that inhabits the surrounding glaciers and that one’s actions can reflect in the condition of the natural environment. If one behaves unethically, it could lead to less meltwater than is necessary for growing crops that year.

Using the information provided by their elders, the youth interviewers from The Global Workshop are documenting the changes in their environment and their elder’s responses. Their interviews will help to fill gaps in environmental data extending to the 1950s in an effort to better understand changes in the local water systems and health of the glaciers. 

Many of the youth attend schools like the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) environmental school. Founded by education reformist and engineer Sonam WangchukSECMOL works on renewable energy and climate change preparedness with the youth from Ladakh. The campus is a student-run, solar-powered eco-village, where students live among staff and volunteers.

Students listen intently in class at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school (Source: SECMOL).

The Global Workshop’s video shows the importance of passing down generational knowledge, demonstrating how helpful it can be for youth involvement, community building, and environmental data collection.

If you are still curious about Ladakh, see GlacierHub’s recent piece on climate change adaptation to learn more about other efforts in the region.

 

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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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Education Fuels Disaster Resiliency in Northern India

In the Northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, accelerated glacier melting in the Ladakh region has made communities increasingly vulnerable to glacier lake outburst floods, or GLOFs. These unpredictable natural disasters occur when glacier meltwater creates lakes at high elevations, which have the potential to overflow and cascade down the steep slopes of mountains.

As temperatures in the Himalayan region continue to climb due to climate change, the number of glacier lakes in Ladakh has surged to over 266 as of 2014, making outburst floods an acute risk in the region.

glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel, USGS/NASA JPL/AGU
glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel (USGS/NASA JPL/AGU)

While engineering and infrastructure projects can decrease the chances of an outburst flood, many remote, high altitude communities in India do not have the economic means or technology to build expensive mitigation structures that could halt the effects of GLOFs. However, a recent study conducted by Naho Ikeda, Chiyuki Narama, and Sonam Gyalson found that community-based measures like engagement and education may provide an alternative path to increased GLOF resiliency in Ladakh.

The Switzerland-based International Mountain Society (IMS) conducted the study in India, published earlier this year in the journal Mountain Research and Development. The research team developed a series of community workshops in Domkhar, a village in Ladakh that is a high risk community with at least 13 glacier lakes located in the watershed. The idea was to determine whether education and outreach were viable tools for protecting the villagers from glacier lake outburst floods.

Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)
Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)

The workshop, held in May of 2012, brought together 120 community members, scientists, and translators to discuss a wide range of topics on glacier lake outburst floods. Over the course of four sessions, Ikeda and her colleagues discussed their findings from a 2010 field survey of local glacier lakes and distributed an informational booklet written in Ladakhi, the predominant local language. The workshop also gave researchers insight into the community members’ cultural practices, religious beliefs, and current understanding of the impacts of climate change on their local environment.

The researchers’ concluded from their time in Domkhar that community members had a mixed level of knowledge of GLOFs and their associated risks. According to the report, community members expressed an understanding of glacier lakes and GLOFs that relied on a combination of their personal experiences with nature and their religious beliefs.

One group of villagers explained that sacred animals, including horses and sheep, cause outburst floods when the community angers them. Others mentioned that the lakes are sacred because the Tibetan Buddhist temples throughout the region are reflected on the surface of the water. Religion was predominantly mentioned by older members of the community rather than younger villagers, reflecting the fact that cultural identity has played a large role in the Ladakhi community’s understanding of the natural world, although that notion may be shifting with younger generations.

Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa (wiki)
Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh (wiki)

A larger number of workshop participants also discussed their observations of nature, including the animal species and local geography surrounding the glacier lakes. However, individual observations were not always accurate, as participants did not know how many glacier lakes were within the watershed or of the emergence of a new glacier lake in the area formed in 2011.

Over the course of the day, community members displayed a curiosity and increasing knowledge of GLOFs that led to the adoption of a 7-point resolution to respond to a glacier lake outburst flood. The resolution included the development of a community-based GLOF monitoring committee, establishment of an evacuation plan, and discouraging construction near stream banks. While these measures require time and effort on the part of Domkhar residents, new technology and financial support are not necessary for implementation.

Three months later, researchers returned to the village with hopes that their workshop had increased local understanding of the dangers of GLOF and made a lasting impact on the community. Results were predominantly positive, according to a follow-up survey—over half of the interviewees reported a greater understanding of glacier lake outburst floods and countermeasures to respond to a natural disaster. Even members who had not attended the workshop showed improved understanding, indicating that the information had spread throughout the community.

Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)
Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)

However, the rise in awareness within Domkhar did not necessarily translate into action. Only half of the villagers interviewed said they made preparations for flooding since the workshop. These findings indicate that awareness and education can reduce a community’s social vulnerability to natural disasters by making resiliency a community-backed effort, but cannot stand alone as the only resiliency measure. Economic and geographic barriers in the remote villages of Ladakh make implementation of GLOF countermeasures a challenge, even for the most committed communities.

 

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Driving the world’s “highest road” as the glaciers vanish

Vehicle stuck at Khardung La Pass (source: Michael Day/Creative Commons)
Vehicle stuck at Khardung La Pass (source: Michael Day/Creative Commons)

When Showkat Ali began driving buses in the 1980s on the Northern India’s Khardung-la, the world’s reputed highest motorable road, the Khardung glacier was immense and represented a daunting obstacle for vehicle transport. One day, he saw the vehicles in front and behind him vanish in a sudden tide of snow while his bus was spared. “While driving, you have to stay focused on the road and avoid loud music, but the rest is in the hands of God,” the bus driver reflected, as he sought to explain his nearly fatal event.

The situation today on the Khardung-la pass isn’t what it was when Ali began driving in his early twenties, becoming the first bus driver in Ladakh to make the perilous ride from Leh to Diskit, braving the Khardung pass which reaches a dizzying altitude of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). “The temperatures rose tremendously in the past years,” Ali said as he spoke about the generalized recession of glaciers he observed in Ladakh during his three decades of bus driving, recalling also how in his childhood the snow was deep enough to cover his thighs in winter.

Though commonly known as the “highest road“, modern GPS measuring estimates Khardung-la isn’t as high as the Mana Pass, a Indian military road near the border with Nepal, but that doesn’t diminish the challenge of driving over the Indian pass. Showkat Ali’s driving feats are so impressive that National Geographic Channel India featured him on one of its programs. Back in the early 1980s, the roads were in terrible shape, snowstorms were more frequent than they are today and being trapped in a remote village for many days was common, said the now retired driver as we chatted over a cup of tea at Chotak restaurant in Leh, the capital of the former kingdom of Ladakh, on a cold winter morning in 2013.

In Showkat Ali’s view, “the glaciers of Ladakh are melting because of higher temperatures, but the problem with the Khardung-la is that too many vehicles are coming close to it.” In a place where cultural taboos prohibit human activity in the high mountains, regarded as the dwellings of divine spirits, there has been a recent proliferation of infrastructure development initiatives, such as road building and hydroelectric projects.

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When Ali started driving, the only way to build a road crossing the pass was to carve into the glacier. Later, an iron bridge was built across the glacier when the ground underneath had become too unstable. Year after year, the bridge was swept away by avalanches and built anew. But about 20 years ago, the presence of a bridge became futile as the ice progressively receded. The structure that once spanned the pass was left shattered in pieces, some of its fragments still punctuating the landscape today. Warming temperatures nullified the need for a bridge across the Khardung-la. Afterwards, although weathered and beaten by the harsh Himalayan roads, Showkat Ali’s bus could traverse the mountain pass easily, trundling along a road where glacier ice had stood not long before. “Making the trip over the Khardung-la today is like child’s play”, Ali said.

Indeed, the region of Ladakh has seen a steady decline in snowfall in recent decades, although this has been poorly monitored on the ground and much of the existing data remains closely guarded by the army in this geopolitically sensitive region, further hampering the efforts of researchers. Nonetheless, Ali’s account and all other testimonies I heard in Ladakh unmistakably echoed one another: today the weather is warmer, glaciers are vanishing, there is almost no more snow in winter, and avalanches have become rare. Soon, so will the glaciers.

This guest post was written by Karine Gagné, an anthropologist and researcher at the University of Montreal. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

 

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