The "Ice Man" Of Kashmir Reverses The Melting Of Glaciers To Save Thousands Of Farmers

Apr 21, 2015 By Archit Tripathi

In a little-known place called the Rooftop of the World, there is a man who watched Himalayan glaciers melting for 40 years and discovered a simple way to reverse the process. 

Ladakh is a region in the northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir. Literally translating to "land of the high passes," Ladakh sits high in the Himalayas at an elevation ranging from 9,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level. 

Life here is hard: most people are poor farmers in a region that gets under two inches of rain annually. Most farms rely on glacial melting to provide desperately needed water for their spring crops.

Unfortunately, even a place as remote as this is not immune to the effects of climate change. Thanks to rising temperatures, Himalayan glaciers are actually melting faster than any other glaciers on Earth. They melt a little too much when they start to thaw in the springtime, leading to flooding (or over-irrigated crops at the least).

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That's where Chewang Norphel comes in. Born and raised in a farming family, he was all too familiar with the struggles of farmers. Taking on a career in civil engineering, he also had the chance to become intimately familiar with the entire region.

One day, he noticed that a small stream of meltwater started to freeze back up again when it flowed under the shade of some nearby trees. It dawned on him that if he could imitate the process on a large scale, it might solve the problem of an overactive spring thaw. He explains: “People laughed when I first presented the idea. They said, 'What crazy man are you? How can anyone make a glacier?’”

Luckily, Norphel didn't let the doubters get to him. He knew he had to convince people that not only could it be done, but that it would actually be useful to the people of nearby villages. After some successful early test runs in the 1990s, those doubters were singing a different tune, and he began receiving many offers from people to help him with his work.

So how did he do it?

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Norphel's method involves diverting the melting water from its regular course over to the shady side of the mountain where it can re-freeze. Iron pipes flow into a small reservoir in the shady area, and as the gradually freezing water flows through the pipes, it pushes neatly frozen blocks out the other end, where an artificial glacier starts forming. That glacier stays frozen until the spring, and its meltwater flows to the farms at a more manageable volume and pace.

Other engineers, many of whom Norphel personally mentored, are now carrying on his work with their own spin. Sonam Wangchuk, for example, uses Norphel's basic principles to create ice pyramids. These melt more slowly, and he's nicknamed them "ice stupas," as an homage to the dome-shaped shrines of the region.

Chewang Norphel is simply an inspiration. In the face of adversity, he found a way to help thousands of people in Ladakh. He has gained international acclaim for his work, and has even been named a Climate Hero.

Credit: Upworthy

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