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Global WarmingIce Stupas Have Grow to be a Popular Water Management Tool within...

Ice Stupas Have Grow to be a Popular Water Management Tool within the Himalayas. But Can They Work in Chile?

Ice Stupas Have Grow to be a Popular Water Management Tool within the Himalayas. But Can They Work in Chile?

A woman poses in front of a large dome-shaped block of ice behind her.

A member of the Chilean Nilus Project in front of an ice stupa while on a research trip to the Ladakh region of India. (Rosa Oyarzún, provided by Kristina Lyons)

Every winter across the Himalayas for a long time, human-made reservoirs have been capturing glacial meltwater from streams and preserving it in the shape of ice. By slowing meltwater down or spraying it into the air, people cause it to refreeze, often into shapes called stupas, after the domed Buddhist shrines they could resemble. The ice can then be melted the next 12 months, allowing for irrigation that supports longer agricultural seasons in high mountainous areas.

Now, a gaggle of Chilean engineers is attempting to transfer this technology to their country’s high mountain glaciers in what they call the Nilus Project. In 2021 the engineers developed their first prototype in a personal park within the Cajón de Maipo area south of Santiago, the nation’s capital. The world was chosen resulting from each quick access and its proximity to the Maipo, a glacier-fed river descending from the Andes that gives fresh water for Santiago and the encircling region. Through the 2021 Southern Hemisphere winter, their prototype gathered 550,000 kilograms of ice that melted in just below two months. While smaller than the reservoirs within the Himalayas, it offers an early proof of concept.

These efforts caught the eye of University of Pennsylvania researcher Kristina Lyons, who read concerning the project while she was doing anthropological research on Indigenous Mapuche communities and their relationship with surrounding glaciers around Santiago.

“I used to be totally fascinated by this concept,” she said in an interview with GlacierHub, recalling that it was the distinctive South-to-South knowledge transfer between the Himalayas and Chile that first stood out to her. “I used to be really fascinated by this technology, what could it possibly do and the way it was being framed.” Lyons began working with the engineers, and published a paper analyzing the Nilus Project’s unique sociopolitical context earlier this 12 months.

A large, triangle shaped block of ice sits with a backdrop of snow and mountains.

The Nilus Project’s prototype ice stupa, which captured 550,000 kilograms of solid ice within the winter of 2021. (Nilus Project, provided by Kristina Lyons)

Satellite photography dates the development of Himalayan ice reservoirs to at the least the Nineteen Sixties. Sometimes called “artificial glaciers”—a catchy but scientifically inaccurate term, since they don’t accumulate ice long run or move across land—these reservoirs reduce the lack of the glacial meltwater by making the most of the frequent freeze-thaw cycles in cold, arid environments. Unlike lakes, which freeze from the highest down, ice reservoirs freeze from the underside up. By engineering a slow trickle of meltwater from mountains—whether by making a cascade of loose steps, redirecting the water right into a shadier place with a big surface area, or by sending it into pipes that spray it into the encircling air—ice reservoirs allow water to freeze back into ice before flowing any further. Over time, layers of ice form on top of one another, making a water storage system.

Lately, individual community leaders and NGOs have garnered significant attention beyond the Himalayan communities and around the globe. That’s how these projects first caught the Chileans’ eyes. The recent expansion of ice reservoir projects across the Himalayas represents a robust example of community-led, locally designed water management solutions.

“Their priority was really about empowering communities to resolve their very own problems, and making a system of education to coach people within the region to [do so],” said Lyons.

Marcus Nuesser, a professor at Heidelberg University, has studied the history, evolution and efficacy of the practice in Himalayan mountain communities. “These sorts of ice reservoirs have quite a protracted history in places like [the Indian region of] Ladakh,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.

Nuesser notes that the actual type of ice reservoir upon which the Chilean engineers are modeling their project, the ice stupa, is a comparatively latest iteration of an old practice. Ice stupas work by spraying small water droplets to create and store ice. Designed and popularized by Ladakhi engineer Sonam Wangchuk around 2015, a surge of interest and funding followed. “They’d something like a contest between different villages—which village constructs the very best one,” Nuesser recalled.

A group of students, dressed in warm coats and winter pants, stand in front of two large domes of ice.

Students of the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives in Ladakh pose in front of their project, as a part of the ‘Ice Stupa Competition’ held in 2018-2019. (The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, via Wikimedia)

Nevertheless, a big barrier to making sure the success of an ice stupa depends upon an adequate workforce for maintenance. In Ladakh, many early projects were scaled up by NGOs that received international funding. Nuesser notes that after the projects were launched and the funding dried up, communities often struggled to maintain the ice stupas running. This was partially resulting from a dwindling agrarian workforce across this region, which has long been characterised by massive outmigration.

“These structures [need] lots of maintenance,” Nuesser said. “When the cash ran out, I saw many cases where they simply let [them] go down. … When the hype is over, the structure faces some problems.” Nuesser said that when he visited Ladakh last winter, he saw quite a few once-impressive structures in a poor state.

The necessity for an adequate workforce also presents a big challenge in Chile, where only a few people live within the mountainous areas around which glacial meltwater could possibly be captured. Without eyes to search for burst pipes, slow flow rates or other issues, the project could also be compromised. Nevertheless, Nilus’s engineers are within the technique of testing distant sensing and artificial intelligence technologies to regulate how and where ice forms atop the structure.

The Chilean context adds one other unique barrier: a privatized water rights structure that dictates how downstream water may be used. Water privatization was first signed into law by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1980, which created a proper market for getting, selling and leasing water rights throughout the country. Last 12 months, Chileans rejected a latest structure that might have largely undone the availability.

The law draws a fantastic line between privatizing glaciers and privatizing water streams from them. “You can not privatize water from a glacier within the sense that you could’t just put a hose up there and say, ‘whatever runs off is mine,’” explained Lyons. “But as water melts, because it does every season immediately due to climate change, it’s owned by any individual. And in order that is one in all the complications: Where will the water go? And who’s it for?”

Nuesser agrees. “It’s a very different set of issues,” he said, noting how the expansion of the Chilean mining sector adds yet one more layer of issues, since mining operations typically require large amounts of water, and will present an interest in the brand new ice stupa’s water supply. Still, Nuesser is cautiously optimistic. “This will work in the event that they keep people informed about ownership on this,” he said.

For Lyons, Chile’s water rights issue highlights the restrictions of how much a personal company can do to handle regional water scarcity. “I do know they’ve totally good intentions,” she said. She cited continued water stress exacerbated by internal migration from other parts of Chile into the Santiago region. “But they’re also still caught in a model themselves, economically. What can they do, in the event that they must create a business and want to pay employees? In such a privatized system, how much flexibility do you may have for the project to really turn into [a climate solution]?”

Nuesser also notes that even when the project were to achieve success at holding onto glacial meltwater well into the agricultural season, it will not mitigate the lack of glaciers as an entire.

“They [ice reservoirs] are very successful concepts to bridge this critical gap of water scarcity. But in one other way, there’s no additional water that comes into the system,” he said. “It helps to address the water demand for this 12 months, and for the following 12 months perhaps. But it is going to not assist in the long term, when primary water sources will decrease.”

Lyons concurred. “I believe that for the Chileans, they would really like to feel like they’ve something they might do to handle their glacier retreat,” she said. “What I see is that on this moment of intensifying awareness about climate change and global warming, it will appear to be it will be helpful if the ice stupas could do something like that. It’s still very speculative.”

Efforts in Chile to scale up from the pilot project near Santiago will show whether this much-lauded example of South-South technology transfer proves effective.

A dome-shaped block of ice, surrounded by snow and ice, sprays water into the air from its top.

Through a series of pipes, the Nilus Project’s prototype ice stupa sprouts latest ice by spraying glacial meltwater from the highest and forming ice from the underside up. (The Nilus Project, provided by Kristina Lyons)

GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist on the Columbia Climate School. Lots of GlacierHub’s writers are Climate School students or alumni.


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