After getting acclimatized to Ladakh and doing some preliminary research, we finally set out to investigate “Artificial Glaciers”, which are what brought us to India in the first place. Taylor and I wrote about artificial glaciers for a freshman year research paper that was discovered by a landscape architecture professor who invited us to do field research with her this summer. And now we’re here!
Ladakh lies in the rain-shadow of the Himalayan mountain range, which prevents it from experiencing the monsoons of the Indian subcontinent. The landscape is arid and barren, with the exception of the bursts of life that have been carved into the valleys with skillful irrigation of glacier and snow meltwater. Recently, many villages in Ladakh have experienced the effects of retreating and shrinking glaciers—the meltwater takes longer to travel down the mountainside and farms no longer receive water during the early spring months. This interferes with the sowing of plants during a short summer where every week counts. Artificial glaciers originated as a response to this problem, and as a way to better manage water-resources in such a harsh environment.
Before artificial glaciers were installed, glacial water that flowed down the mountain between August and November (the off-season for farming) went unused and entered the Indus River. Now, during this period, the water is diverted, slowed down, and distributed over a wide area where it is able to freeze as an ice sheet. Water in a stream moves too fast to freeze, but water that is distributed in a thin layer over a large area freezes almost instantly. Little by little, layers of ice and snow accumulate in a retainment structure until it amounts to a large mass of ice (i.e. “glacier”) that stays frozen throughout the winter. The artificial glaciers are strategically placed at a lower altitude so that they melt earlier in the year than their retreating parent glaciers. A huge portion of rural Ladakhis rely on agriculture for their income and subsistence; artificial glaciers help them preserve their century-old way of living. Artificial glaciers essentially re-allocate water that would otherwise go unused (during the fall) to a critical time (early spring) when villagers are experiencing shortages. Although they are termed “Artificial Glaciers”, they are in reality more like frozen reservoirs.
Our goal this summer is to figure out where they are, how they work, how they fail, and how to convey their importance to the public and academic communities. Besides knowing which village in which the artificial glacier is located, we have no idea where the actual structures exist. So, we spend a few hours hiking in areas that look like the below, and follow a watershed up the mountain in hopes of finding the system. We get to hike for our job…it’s unreal. We embarked to find the artificial glacier in the village Igoo on Monday. After wandering in the wrong direction for a few hours (extremely enjoyable nonetheless), a friendly local woman helped guide us to the site of the artificial glacier. She was anywhere between 40 and 80 years of age, and extremely nimble on the rocky slopes. Since there is hardly anything written about artificial glaciers, we kind of act like archaeologists uncovering the secrets of a long lost 2008 civilization. We measure the pieces of the structures, map them out, and try to make sense of what we’re looking at. We have a million questions for Chewang Norphel, the chief civil engineer behind all six of the artificial glaciers that are currently in operation. After a long day of glacier-ing on Tuesday, we were invited to have tea in the home of a Stokmo village family. Stokmo had an artificial glacier until a 2010 cloudburst caused a mudslide that destroyed it. The local specialty is Tibetan butter tea. A big hunk of salty butter is placed in the churn (below), where it is mixed in with hot water and tealeaves. Then it is strained, poured into a big thermos, and served, endlessly.