LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – In November of 2016, Sonam Wangchuk took the stage of Hollywood’s landmark Dolby Theater to accept one of 10 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The 140-year-old Rolex Awards are an international philanthropic program that supports new and ongoing projects by individuals making groundbreaking innovations for the benefit of humanity. Wangchuk received his award for his creation of Ice Stupas in the Himalayan desert.
The climate of Ladakh, a cold desert region of the Himalayas in India that rests 3,500 miles above sea level is a challenging place to reside. It can reach a chilling -30ºC in the winter and receives an average annual rainfall of just 100 millimeters. In the spring and summer, glacial mountain streams irrigate the fields where local farmers make their living, but Climate Change has shrunk glaciers and made rainfall and temperatures unpredictable.
Wangchuk, a native of Ladakh, is an engineer, innovator and educational reformist. Being a region that is familiar with the effects of climate change, Wangchuk has found many ways to use his talents to fight the problem at hand. In 2015, he built his first Ice Stupa, a 20-meter artificial glacier, in a Ladakhi village.
The Ice Stupas are constructed in the winter in preparation for the spring when annual glacial melts have not yet started flowing to irrigate farmland. Wangchuk lays a pipe underground from a glacial mountain stream to a Ladakhi village. The water flows into the community and spouts from the top of a telephone-pole-height pipe. The water freezes as it reaches the ground and eventually forms a cone of ice 30 to 50 meters high that resembles the local sacred mud structures called Stupa or Chorten.
The invention functions under the realization that the majority of glacial melt occurs not from rising temperatures but rather from direct sunlight. A flat sheet of ice will melt faster than a vertical cone that minimizes the volume of ice exposed to the rays of the sun. This sheet helps to conserve the Ice Stupa as long into the summer as possible so that it melts to irrigate the fields until June when natural glacial melt waters start flowing.
Wangchuk’s 2015 prototype used 1.5 miles of pipe to successfully supply 1.5 million liters of water to 5,000 saplings in the village desert. Now, just one Ice Stupa can store 10 million liters of water and irrigate 25 acres of land. Wangchuk is laying pipe for 50 more Ice Stupas in the region.
Once Wangchuk has perfected the Ice Stupa for providing water to villages, he will transmit that technology into preventing Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Vast lakes of glacial meltwater threaten to flood communities, take lives and destroy critical infrastructure. The area of the central Himalayas covered by lakes fed by glaciers has risen 122 percent since 1976. Wangchuk says, “these have to be mitigated before they become a disaster.”
He will not halt his ingenuity there, however, as he plans to use his winnings from the 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise to establish a pan-Himalayan research university that will address the region’s environmental concerns.
– Sophie Nunnally