If you live in the mountainous area of northern India, known as Ladakh, you’ll see many Buddhist shrines known as “Stupas”. Typically containing relics, stupas are used as places of meditation.They’re easy to spot as they’re usually large, dome-shaped, built with stone replicating previously wooden parts. They are the archetypal symbol of the enlightened mind.
Imagine the surprise of seeing a 64-foot high glacial ice stupa.
The enlightened mind that developed this ice structure is a native of Ladakh, also known as the Trans-Himalayan, is engineer Soanm Wangchuk. However, this “ice stupa” is not for meditation.
In spring, farmers who live at 11,342 feet in the trans-Himalayan mountains of Ladakh face acute water shortages. Water is needed to irrigate the fields of barley, apples and other crops in spring, but the glacial melt doesn’t arrive until summer. To spare farmers a barren yield, Wangchuck has invented a way to bring the glaciers to the people’s farms.
His ingenious solution is to freeze glacial meltwater into towering conical mounds resembling Tibetan religious stupas. These ice stupas behave like mini-glaciers, slowly releasing irrigation water for the growing season.
In 2015, with $125,000 raised on a crowdfunding site, Wangchuk built the first “ice stupa”, 64 feet tall, made by piping mountain streams into a Ladakhi village. The water spouts geyser-like from a vertical pipe, freezing into a cone of ice shaped like a Buddhist shrine. It’s designed to stay frozen until the spring sun warms the fields.
Sure enough, Wangchuk’s prototype began to melt in April, watering a field of newly planted poplar trees. By June, when the regular glacial melt began to flow, the ice stupa was mostly gone.
Now Wangchuk is laying a pipeline to build 50 more ice stupas. Each will supply 2,641,720 gallons of water a year and irrigate 25 acres of land.
Wangchuk’s design builds on the experimental work of fellow Ladakhi engineer Chewang Norphel, who created flat artificial glaciers. Wangchuk realized, however, that a workable structure must have a minimal surface area to provide protection from the sun, especially at lower altitudes. Thanks to this design, ice stupas melt at a slower rate than flat ice. The 2015 prototype, the result of a crowdfunding campaign that paid for a 1.43 mile pipeline to direct glacial streams down to the village desert, lasted until early July, supplying 396,258 gallons of meltwater to 5,000 saplings planted by locals.
Word of his project has reached mountaintops across the world. Last year he built Europe’s first ice stupa, in the Swiss Alps, and this year he’ll work on refreezing a glacial lake in India to halt flash floods.
The inventor—whose past projects include solar-powered buildings and efficient cookstoves—won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016. He is using the winnings to establish a pan-Himalayan research university that will address the region’s environmental concerns.