Ice stupas. Photo: Wikipedia

“But what change can I make?” …  “Changing my habits, practices and lifestyle would make but an iota of difference!” … “Why should I be the only one concerned about the environment?” Such interjections are frequently encountered in the context of environmental concerns and grassroots initiatives.

Truly, a lack of quantitative prospects isn’t much of an incentive. But what if your individual changes could erect edifices? What if days of labor and months of waiting could visibly alter the landscape? What if a small community’s concerns could alter the skyline and change resource patterns for years?

The Mongol juggernaut led by the great Genghis Khan thumped across the steppes in the 13th century, and subjugated most of central Eurasia. He ruthlessly trampled all that came in his way and impeded him, even his own men. But when he reached the Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges, his ferocious army faced an unlikely obstacle – a series of glaciers that blocked the only tiny passages through mountains, called passes. The expansion of his conquest was thus limited at the northwestern part of the South Asian subcontinent. Any plans of southward expansion were thwarted. Legend has it that local villagers promptly “grew” glaciers across mountain passes when they received news of an imminent invasion by the Mongols.

People in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of modern-day Pakistan have utilized manmade glaciers as an ensured perennial source of freshwater, for both drinking and irrigation purposes. The region lies at the trisection of three colossal mountain ranges: the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush. The glacier-culturing practice is said to have originated in Karakoram.

Natural glaciers, however, vastly differ in their formation process from manmade glaciers. Glacial ice is formed from accumulated snow. When flaky and powdery snow compresses under the weight of its own piled-up layers, it results in a compacted, hard, crystalline mass of ice. Natural glaciers result from snow masses that persist year-around, typically for a few years, such that the snow keeps gathering in successive winters and amasses enough load to transform into ice. Consistently low ambient temperatures are also required.

In Ladakh, India, conical ice “stupas,” which resemble namesake Buddhist sites in shape, are built. These stupas expose a low surface area outward to the sunlight. This slows down their melting and ensures they survive, compensate and even amass year after year. The Ice Stupa Project was the brainchild of engineer Sonam Wangchuk, who is said to have inspired the blockbuster Bollywood movie 3 Idiots. The stupa was created by a collaboration between Wangchuk’s non-governmental organization and the Phyang Monastery in Ladakh. It was crowd-funded and the result of voluntary labor by the village community.

Ice stupas are often formed by spraying glacial melt from natural or pre-existing high-altitude glaciers. The melt form these glaciers runs down and is tapped by long vertical pipes that spray it out; the spray freezes midair as it falls and thus results in a cone-shaped stupa. Its melt is in turn used to foster silviculture – timber trees are grown, cut down and sold.

“The project plans to build a cascade of 80-90 ice stupas to store 1 billion liters of water, enough to cover the entire Phyang desert (600 hectares) with a plantation of 2 million trees,” an article by the International Water Management Institute says about the ambitious and sustainable project. “Apart from the economic and employment benefits, this will transform the whole agrarian structure of the cold, arid and barren desert, boosting the livelihoods of the local people and sequestering carbon. In recognition of the project, Sonam Wangchuk was a 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise laureate.”

Ladakh has several kinds of glacier-making techniques. One involves building a series of check-dams and channels with boulders that divert melting water gushing from high altitudes, and slowly channel it into a winding course, prolonging its path enough for it to be frozen. This creates a serpentine glacier that melts successively. Another method involves creating a pool or basin, enclosed by boulders and twigs. This collects the water from each melt, and freezes and stacks it in layers. These in turn melt to irrigate crops seasonally.

Ladakh is a cold alpine desert, earning it the sobriquet “desert in the skies.” Because of a rarified atmosphere, the scorching of the sun is intense, as is the low-altitude cold. Ladakh lies overshadowed by the gigantic Himalayas, in the “rain shadow area” of the mountains, also called the leeward side. Clouds from the other side encounter the titanic mountains and cannot cross them. On the other hand, the cold prevents much evaporation and cripples the water cycle. This results in Ladakh receiving an average of 10 centimeters of rain annually.

With these innovations, the people of Ladakh benefit not only in their survival and environmental subsistence, but also in economic sustenance. They are not only food-sufficient, but agriculture-surplus. Timber, orchard products and crop sales ensure supplementary or even primary livelihoods for thousands of families residing in inhospitable and seasonally inaccessible regions.

Ice crystallization or frosting begins with a very tiny crystal called a nucleus, core or kernel. These nuclei get rapidly encrusted in annular layers or branch out to frost surrounding areas. All ice formation occurs around these nucleation centers. Each snowfall adds a new stratum to the existing ice layer.

Glacial grafting is an ancient practice. Traditionally, “seeds” from male and female (a folk classification) glaciers are combined to “breed.” Under this categorization, the female glacier is fluid, white or bluish-white in color, mobile, gives off plenty of water, and can “beget” offspring. Meanwhile, the male glacier lacks generative capability, is black and covered with rocks and earth, and is rigid. It is also said to remain intact and give off little water. Glaciers are reverently personified by the residents of these areas.

Samples from both kinds of glaciers are taken, lumped together and covered by charcoal, grains, fabric or twigs. They are left undisturbed in this solemn marital bond to breed and proliferate. The eclectic nuclei serve as robust crystallization centers. The protective case acts as an insulator for the initial ice culture, which agglomerates inbound snow-precipitation.

The choice of charcoal, sawdust, wheat husk, nutshells and branches are all due to their thermal insulation ability. According to the local news source Pamir Times, “Ingredients are usually put underneath one or several large boulders, and then walled in by smaller rocks. The water gourds are placed with the lumps of the ice. During the winters the gourds break down as the water is frozen, and become part of the ice. The water (inside the succulent gourds) becomes part of the ice, and the permafrost will develop into a large mass of ice (glacier).”

The antiquarian approach is being emulated in Alpine regions of Europe as well as under systematic government and NGO planning in recent times, in Pakistan, Ladakh, and some nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

As population growth, climate change and economic development exert an increasing toll on resources of the region, traditional wisdom, albeit adapted and assisted by modern engineering, is becoming more relevant than ever. Can these methods lead to sustainable agriculture and economic growth in alpine regions all over the world, particularly in context of a worldwide water crisis just around the corner?

Both symbolically and practically, the glacier-grafting practice emphasizes bonding and coherence of community efforts. When we align our endeavors, a small group of people can bring sea changes in their respective locales. Community is the fundamental unit of civilization, as well as an integral and inalienable part of the local ecosystem. Such traditional solutions harmonize the natural world and human needs with small compromises and habits, rather than staunching or alienating one of them. Thus community grassroots efforts bridge the civilized world and the natural world, and could pose as our ideal solution to the climate conundrum.

Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.

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