Glacier Man

Chewang Norphel ran away at age 10 to attend secondary school 250 miles away. He paid for lessons by cooking and cleaning. He then studied at the university in Lucknow, and brought his knowledge home, to build roads, culverts, bridges, and schools. Subsistence farmers had no money, but volunteered their labor. Materials were still a challenge, but creativity solved problems where money could not: canals were built without cement, instead using roots from planted weeds to plug gaps.

Over time, needs changed. Ladakhi farmers in the trans-Himalayan region of India, 2.5 miles high, depend on glacier melt. So do more than one in six people worldwide, more than one billion people. In Ladakh, rainfall is only 2 inches per year, comparable to the Saharas. Melting glaciers once provided substantial water.

According to the October 30, 2009 Science (subscription needed),

global warming has hit this region particularly hard. The tree line has risen more than 150 meters during Norphel’s lifetime, and glaciers have retreated by as much as 10 kilometers.

Nearby glaciers were gone, and more distant glaciers did not supply meltwater until May or June. So Norphel found a way to build artificial glaciers, channeling winter water flow into stone embankments that allow it to spread and trickle into a depression, and freeze. His glacier melted from late March to late April, after which natural glaciers provide meltwater. The crops watered by the artificial glacier feed 4 villages, 1,500 people.

“Before the artificial glacier, we really struggled to get any barley,” says Tashi Tundop, a 76-year-old farmer from Stakmo village. “But now we can grow many crops, even potatoes, which need to be planted earlier in the spring, but sell for much more money. I get three times more income than I used to.”

glacier man
This Christian Science Monitor article has a video.

Norphel has built glaciers for other areas, though not every site has the necessary altitude, water flow, and surface area temperature. An early rain in 2006 devastated one glacier. Help with analysis, design, and money are all needed.

Norphel’s brilliant method to help this region adapt to climate change may not survive continuing climate change. Winter snowfall is down, and September rain, which ruins harvests, has increased. But for now, glacier man has made a large difference in the lives of the local people.

Information from October 30, 2009 Science (subscription needed).

Comments are closed.