Ladakh is a beautiful high-altitude desert in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite its stunning view, the geographical conditions have made life in Ladakh hard. The Himalayan mountains cast a rain shadow blocking the monsoon clouds from entering Ladakh. This results in water scarcity, especially during spring. The desert receives an average of 50mm rainfall per year. The villagers are completely dependent on water from melt snow.
Every winter, huge ice blocks are formed at high altitudes of Ladakh. This ice blocks melt in spring to provide water for villagers and farmers. It is a water cycle seen every year. But due to climate change, the glaciers are melting away at an unexpected rate disturbing the cycle.
Ice stupas are artificial glaciers are a solution to the water crisis in Ladakh. Ice stupas might be so called because of their structural resemblance to Buddhist stupas. The man behind the idea of ice stupa is Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer from Ladakh. The idea struck him when he saw ice hanging beneath a bridge in summer. The cone-shaped ice still remained because it was under shade. Wangchuk realized the melting speed of artificial glaciers was linked to the surface area exposed to sunlight and wind.
Sonam Wangchuk started working on ice stupas by capturing and freezing water. The water captured usually keeps flowing away into the rivers throughout the winter. The basic idea behind ice stupas is to capture water, sprinkle it, freeze it and protect the ice from direct sunlight.
Construction of ice stupas is usually started in winters. This technique needs no pump or power. The water piped from upstream can easily rise up to the height of the source. The water rushing out of the pipe starts freezing in cold winter nights (at -30 to -50°C). The water first freezes at the ground level and then mount higher increasing the height of ice stupa. As the height of the stupa increases, it naturally takes the shape of a cone. To support the structure, ropes and willow tree branches are used.
Due to the cone structure, the stupa can escape melting. As these ice cones extend vertically upwards towards the sun they receive less amount of direct sunlight. This helps the ice stupa to escape melting and last longer till summer.
With a simple and economical construction, ice stupas can definitely solve farmers and villagers problem. It can also help in establishing a green terrain on the brown desert.
Following the success of ice stupas in Ladakh, Sonam Wangchuk was invited to Switzerland. The Swiss wanted to build more ice stupas to reduce the effects caused by fast-melting glaciers in Swiss mountains. The advantages are indeed endless for this economical made-in-India technology.