Ice Stupas of the Himalaya

A version of this story appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Uncommon Path

Glaciers can take centuries to form, but in remote Ladakh, in the disputed Kashmir region of the Himalaya, engineer Sonam Wangchuk figured out how to create an artificial one in just a few weeks. The process is mesmerizing to watch—and energy-neutral, requiring no pumps or power sources. Glacial meltwater collected in a gravity-powered pipe sprays up through a sprinkler, freezing instantly in the frigid desert air and forming a cone-shaped structure. The towers can rise up to 15 stories high, resembling a Buddhist shrine, or stupa.

These frozen-water formations are helping mitigate the impact of a changing climate for Ladakhi farmers, who rely on glacial meltwater to irrigate their crops. The idea is to provide them with a steady source of stored water to use all year. Hotter summers cause glaciers to melt so fast that they can trigger flash floods, leaving less water for the spring, when farmers need it most. As glaciers retreat, farms disappear, which affects the entire village.

Since Wangchuk erected the first ice stupa in Ladakh in 2013, dozens have gone up all over the region. They now sometimes double as tourist attractions—one village opened a café inside its stupa.

Locals have long been capturing and refreezing meltwater in tanks, caves, ice reservoirs and artificial cascades. The ice stupa is innovative because of its shape and grandeur. With its conical form, it doesn’t melt as fast as a natural glacier, says Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian, a former manager of the Ice Stupa Project who now studies artificial ice reservoirs, including stupas, at Switzerland’s University of Fribourg. A team there is trying to prove the feasibility of saving water in this way as a response (though not a solution) to climate change.

Stupas could be effective in places with topography and weather conditions similar to Ladakh’s: cold, arid regions where water is supplied by a nearby natural glacier, such as Nepal, Chile and Peru. But Balasubramanian says that the stupas can never replace natural glaciers that have vanished. “The project is about reclaiming meltwater of glaciers,” he says. “We can’t do anything if there’s no water above.”