Geo-Engineering the Micro Climate: Artificial Glaciers in Asia

March 8, 2012

National Geographic:

But in recent decades, climate change has uncoupled glacial melt cycles in the Tibetan Plateau—which is warming up on average two degrees Celsius faster than the rest of the world—from the traditional agricultural season, causing water shortages in April and May when Ladakhis typically begin sowing seeds for the summer season. If the villagers don’t sow during this critical window, there is no crop that year.

One winter in the late 1980s, an engineer from Skara named Chewang Norphel came up with a possible solution to his village’s problem while strolling around his backyard.

Norphel noticed that a small stream had frozen solid under the shade of a poplar grove, though it flowed freely elsewhere in his sunny yard. The reason for this, he realized, was that the flowing water was moving too quickly to freeze, while the sluggish trickle of water beneath the grove was not.

Over the next several years, Norphel worked to create an irrigation system that functioned using the same simple natural principle. The result has been Ladakh’s artificial glaciers. Ten have been built to date.

To create the glaciers, Norphel and his team of engineers divert water from rivers into neighboring valleys that have been carefully penned in with rocks. This step usually takes place in the winter months of October through December. To slow the water down to a trickle, the diversion canals often take long meandering routes around mountainsides.

Once it arrives in the valley, the water freezes in a shallow layer in small pools. The process is repeated until the stacked layers of ice are several feet thick. If too much water is added too quickly, the result is a slushy pit. “It takes a lot of patience,” Higgins said.

The largest artificial glacier created to date occupies an area of more than a square mile. Because the artificial glaciers sit at a much lower altitude than true glaciers, they melt sooner, in time for the villagers’ spring planting.

(Related: “Video: Receding Himalaya Glaciers“)

“You could do the same thing by building a big water reservoir,” Higgins said, “but it would require a lot more materials, and the water would evaporate because there’s so much sunshine. You would also have to worry about it getting contaminated.”

Popular Science:

This month, Mongolia will launch a project creating a huge manmade ice block to combat the sweltering summer in the capital city of Ulan Bator. As the ice melts, it will cool the city and provide fresh drinking water.

The $750,000 geoengineering project, one of the world’s largest ice-making experiments, seeks to artificially make “naleds,” ice sheets that form along frozen streams and rivers. In Mongolian river beds, layers build up as new water flows onto the surface and freezes, forming ice caps that can build up to more than seven meters thick.

Anglo-Mongolian engineering firm ECOS & EMI will drill holes in the Tuul river as soon as ice forms, so that fresh water will bubble up and freeze, then repeat this process to create a naled so thick it will take months to melt. The hope is that the project will serve as a model for other northern cities to save energy, repair permafrost and combat rising temperatures.

Science adds, (sub required)

ECOS & EMI, the Anglo-Mongolian company behind the plan, has still greater ambitions. “Everyone is panicking about melting glaciers and icecaps, but nobody has yet found a cheap, environmentally friendly alternative,” says Robin Grayson, a geologist in Ulan Bator for ECOS & EMI. “If you know how to manipulate them, naled ice shields can repair permafrost and build cool parks in cities.” The process, Grayson says, can be replicated anywhere where winter tem- peratures fall below –5°C for at least a couple of months.


One Response to “Geo-Engineering the Micro Climate: Artificial Glaciers in Asia”

  1. I’m doubtful these projects would accomplish much. But the project in Ladakh keeps getting written about. It already appeared on National Geographic News more than a decade ago:

    I also covered the Mongolian project for National Geographic News:

    For the article, I wound up talking to a number of scientists who said that if the Mongolians want to keep their capital city cool or reduce their energy costs, there are a lot better ways to go about it.

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