In a desert 13,000 feet above sea level, a remarkable man is taking on the global warming challenge—and winning.
By Gaia Vince
Chewang Norphel is no ordinary villager. He makes glaciers.
Norphel takes a barren, high-altitude desert and turns it into a field of ice that supplies perfectly timed irrigation juice to some of the world’s poorest farmers. So far, he has built ten artificial glaciers since retiring as a government engineer in 1995, and their waters sustain some 10,000 people. It’s hard to describe what an extraordinary feat this is. In one of the most climate change–ravaged regions, Norphel has effectively conjured up water, doubling agriculture yields as assuredly as if he’d swooped in wearing a cape and stopped global warming in its tracks.
I’m in northern India’s remote Trans-Himalaya, in the ancient kingdom of Ladakh. Consisting entirely of mountains, this, the highest inhabited region on Earth, is home to an 80 percent Tantric Buddhist population, settled by pilgrims and traders traveling the ancient Silk Route between Tibet and India or Iran.
In Stakmo village, farmers are preparing for harvest. Two men sit, chatting in sing-song tones against a dry-stone wall, sharpening their scythes with a blade pressed between their knees. An old woman with long, ribbon-woven plaits leads a donkey and calf over to her whitewashed mud-brick house. In the field behind, a yak munches alfalfa and swishes its horse-like tail. Bright marigolds nod crazily around a single apricot tree, and there is a barely perceptible tinkle of wind chimes. The scene feels timeless.
And yet, much has changed, the villagers tell me. “By mid-September, we would wake up with completely frozen moustaches,” says Tashi, a 76-year-old farmer, who wears a woolen hat and large, pink-tinted sunglasses. Buddhist prayer beads hang around his neck, and his dark, sun-crinkled face is cleanish-shaven. I’m above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), but nevertheless, it is not cold enough to freeze moustaches. From the clear, cloudless sky, the sun beams down intensely, as it does for more than 300 days of the year, and it’s burning my European face. The roof of the world is heating up.
Global warming is at play here, disrupting Ladakhi lives more effectively than any international land squabbles. The Himalayas form the largest area covered by glaciers and permafrost outside the polar regions. Glacial melting is accelerating every year, with current annual retreat rates of 70 meters for some glaciers. Humanity is heating the region so fast that the mountains are changing color before people’s eyes: from white to tobacco as the glaciers disappear. And with them, Ladakh’s only reliable water source.
In his lifetime, Tashi has seen two big glaciers vanish in this valley alone—he points out their locations to me and I see only the same dry, sandy, and pink rocks that fill the eye between valley and sky. Just the very top peaks are white, and the only glaciers I spot are at least 5,500 meters up. The warmer climate is not the villagers’ biggest concern, though. In fact, they rather like not having to be confined to their houses so early in the year.
The most painful change is the new unpredictability in precipitation. A catastrophic pattern is developing for moisture at the wrong time of year. The snows used to arrive after October and build during the winter. Then, in March, the snowpack would begin melting, providing vital and timely irrigation for the sowing of the area’s barley crop. But the past decade has seen a gradual reduction in snowfall—the winters of 2012–13 were particularly dry, with serious consequences. When the precipitation does come, it arrives as rain during the harvest season, ruining what few crops the villagers have in the fields, before disappearing to lower elevations.
Norphel is taking on the global-warming challenge—and winning. The person they call the Glacierman dresses not unlike Clark Kent: beige sweater, sensible lace-up shoes. But, unlike comic-book superheroes, he’s 74 years old.
In a display of energy and enthusiasm that is exhausting to witness, Norphel skips across the boulder-strewn landscape above Tashi’s village. He wants to show me his latest artificial glacier design, but I’m finding it tricky simply to breathe the thin air 4,000 meters up. He carries a small backpack: tonight he will sleep in a tent 1,000 meters higher up, at temperatures that dip to –10°C, so as to continue his work in the morning. “When it is very cold and very difficult work, I have to remain focused. All I can think about is making the most successful glacier,” he says.
Engineer, hydrologist, glaciologist, backyard enthusiast, Norphel has created his own field of expertise, using scientific principles and training—but with the tools of an uneducated peasant.
In the 1940s, when Norphel was growing up, there was just one school in Leh, which taught in Urdu (not Ladakhi), and only up to primary standard. As the youngest of three brothers, Norphel would ordinarily have been sent to live in a Buddhist monastery, in part to reduce the family costs as his father would not have been able to afford secondary school. So, at ten years old, Norphel simply ran away, traveling more than 400 kilometers to go to school in Srinagar, Kashmir. The only poor boy at his school, he paid for his education by cooking and cleaning for his teachers.
Graduating in science at the college in Srinagar, Norphel knew two things: he loved mathematics and science, and he wanted to help the farmers he’d seen struggling so hard during his early childhood. There was no university in the state at that time, so Norphel traveled south to Lucknow for a civil engineering degree, this time being taught in Hindi. “You can really make a difference with engineering. You can solve people’s problems quickly and in a way that they can see,” he says.
For Norphel, the whole point of his training has been toward using his knowledge in the service of his fellow Ladakhis. Engineering is a vocation for him in the same way that medicine might be to a doctor.
As soon as he qualified, Norphel returned to Leh to join his father’s cousin in the government of Ladakh’s rural development department as a civil engineer. Over the next 35 years, the enthusiastic, raven-haired engineer became a familiar sight in the region. “There is scarcely a village in Ladakh where I have not made a road, a culvert, a bridge, a school building, an irrigation system, or a zing (small water-storage tank fed by glacial meltwater),” he says. He approached each problem scientifically, experimenting by altering the variables until he arrived at a satisfactory solution—and always remembering that his designs had to be sustainable, using locally available materials. For example, he built a number of canals where, instead of using an expensive cement lining that cracked during winter, he allowed weeds to grow and thicken, their roots naturally sealing the canal lining.
By the time of his retirement in 1995, priorities were shifting. Road building was still important, but Ladakhis were becoming aware of a far more serious problem—one that threatened their livelihoods. “Every village I visited, it would be the same thing: water scarcity,” Norphel says. He was determined to do something. “Water is the most precious commodity here. People are fighting each other for it: in the irrigation season, even brother and sister or father and son are fighting over water. It is against our tradition and our Buddhist teachings, but people are desperate. Peace depends on water.”
Inspiration came within a hundred meters of his house, one bitingly cold winter morning. “I saw water gushing from a pipe and was thinking what a shame it is that so much abundant water is wasted during wintertime—the taps are left open to stop the water from freezing in the pipes and bursting them,” he says. “Then I noticed that on its route to the stream, the water crossed a small wooded field, where it was collecting in pools. Where the trees provided shade, it was freezing into ice patches. By early March, the ice patches had melted.”
Norphel realized that if he could somehow copy this on a much larger scale, he would have a way of storing up this winter water in an artificial glacier that would melt at just the right time for crop sowing and irrigation. It was a beautifully simple concept, but achieving it would be fraught with difficulties. “People laughed when I first presented the idea and asked for funds,” he says. “Officials and villagers were skeptical: ‘What crazy man are you? How can anyone make a glacier?’ I was told.” But Norphel soldiered on. He held meetings with village elders and explained the concept. Gradually, his relentless enthusiasm caught on.
Norphel’s ingenious idea was to divert the winter “waste” water from its course down the mountain, along regularly placed stone embankments that would slow it down and allow it to spread and trickle across a large surface depression a few hundred meters from the village. Here, the slowed water would freeze and pack into a glacier. He shows me the glacier site, pointing out the path he sends the water on, until the rocky valley starts to take shape in my mind and I see how the glacier forms. Siting is everything. The glacial area is shaded by a mountain face during the winter months, when the sun is weak and low. By March, when the sun rises high enough, the thick ice sheet begins melting, pours into a water tanker and through a sluice gate to the farmers’ irrigation canals. The meltwater also helps recharge the groundwater aquifer. This water is so precious that during the irrigation season, a man has to sleep by the sluice gate to guard against water theft.
The rocks beneath the ice sheet channel mountain breezes, cooling the sheet further. And Norphel points out second and third artificial glacier sites at successively higher elevations. “By the time this lowest one has melted, the middle one will start to melt,” he says. “Then the highest one and, finally, the natural glacier at the top of the mountain.” He is grinning now, and I can’t help joining him: it’s such a great invention.
He built his first artificial glacier with very little help, above the village of Phuktse. It was an immediate success, supplying an extra 30 days’ water to irrigation channels. “When people saw the benefits of the artificial glacier, they started helping me, and we stretched the length of the glacier to two kilometers,” Norphel says.
“It was like a miracle: people quickly started to cultivate more land and started planting willow and poplar trees between their fields,” says Phuktse farmer Skarma Dawa. “This technology is very good because it works and it is simple, and there’s very little maintenance required.” They are built using local labor and materials at a fraction of the cost of a cement water reservoir.
Norphel has built nine glaciers since. They average 250 meters long by a hundred meters wide, which he believes provides some 6 million gallons (23,000 cubic meters) of water each—although there has been no accurate analysis to date, and the undulating ground makes it difficult to guess the volume of ice in each glacier.
“What he has achieved in such circumstances, in remote parts of this mountainous desert, is remarkable,” says Pankaj Chandon, coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund’s Indian High Altitude Wetlands Conservation Programme, based in Leh, and who has followed Norphel’s progress over the past decade. “It is testament to his sheer force of character. But also, he has come up with a unique, innovative idea that provides water when it is needed. It is a fantastic adaptation technology for the climate changes that we are experiencing in this region.”
His work has also earned him recognition from those he has helped. “I have a shelf full of home-brewed beers and a trunk of khatag [ceremonial silk scarves given by Buddhists],” he says—but there has been little interest from the scientific world. “I am trying to collect data on how and where the glacier forms best, and which parts precipitate first and why, so that I can improve on them and people can use the technique elsewhere. I lack scientific equipment. I have only my own observations.”
Norphel says he has already had some interest in his glaciers from NGOs working in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. “In some areas, reservoirs are a much more practical solution. But in terms of water storage and release at the irrigation season, you can’t beat artificial glaciers.”
Creating glaciers from scratch, while pretty awesome, is not entirely new. People may have been doing it as far back as the twelfth century. Legend has it that when Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors set their sights on what is now northern Pakistan, the local villagers thwarted their advance by growing glaciers that blocked the mountain passes. The practice of “glacier grafting” is known to go back centuries in Baltistan, an ethnically Tibetan region of the Pakistani Karakoram Mountains, where people rely entirely on glacier meltwater for irrigation. The technique, which has an impor-tant ceremonial component, involves dragging ice from a so-called “female” glacier (a fast-moving, surging glacier) and from a “male” glacier (a slow-moving, rock-strewn glacier), and planting them at a specific site—usually on a northern side of the mountain, above 4,500 meters. The ice is planted on top of boulders and interspersed with gourds, which burst and freeze—after which the “mated” ice is insulated with a covering of cloth and sawdust. Similar techniques, whereby ice is planted above air-channeling boulders, are practiced in Argentina, often in shaded areas like caves. So-called “rock glaciers,” in which the ice sheet forms from frozen snowfall, produces a purer meltwater that is often preferred to “true glaciers,” which contain gathered material and melt into a milky runoff.
In richer countries such as Switzerland, ski-resort managers already spend thousands of dollars on artificial snow and ice and on preserving the cold stuff where it still exists, using giant reflective blankets. In 2008, a German professor constructed 15-meter-high, three-meter-wide, wind-catching screens to channel and trap the cool winds flowing down the mountain onto the Rhône glacier in Switzerland. If it works over time, he intends to repeat the process on other glaciers.
Norphel doesn’t have access to technological blankets or screens—he can’t even analyze the efficacy of his glaciers with real accuracy. But while I am with him, he receives his first scientific visitor, Adina Racoviteanu, a geography graduate at INSTAAR, University of Colorado at Boulder, who is passing through en route to her glacier field stations further east. She offers to make him a topography map of the artificial glacier site, using her hand-held GPS monitor. Norphel’s eyes light up in boyish excitement. “That would be wonderful,” he says, and the pair spend a happy couple of hours taking readings across the site, achieving in that time what would take Norphel weeks to do with his tape measure and plumb line. The device they are using, on loan from Racoviteanu’s institute, costs $3,000; but before she leaves for her “real” glacier, she tells Norphel that models are available for as little as $300. “If I could get one of those, how much easier this would be,” he sighs.
We make our way down the valley to Stakmo, stopping by Tashi’s house. “This man is a hero,” Tashi tells me. “The artificial glacier he has given us allows me to grow potatoes, which need to be planted earlier in the season, and my harvest is so much bigger. I grow tomatoes and other vegetables as well now. I make three times as much income.” The new irrigation has allowed him to take advantage of the warmer conditions. Climate change is ushering in novel farming opportunities across the region (where water is available), and a wide range of vegetables—eggplants, apples, sweet peppers, watermelon—are now growing at high altitudes where previously farmers struggled to sow barley among the ice and desert.
Tashi’s new fortune may be short-lived, though. Climate change is also altering the precipitation patterns here, bringing less snowfall during wintertime—when it is needed to contribute to the artificial glaciers. “These glaciers are not magic formations,” Norphel says. “They need to build over winter.”
The artificial glaciers are not a long-term solution to the climate-change problems people are facing here, but they do provide a breathing space for some of the poorest people to adapt. Further into the Anthropocene, this entire region is likely to become uninhabitable for the majority of farmers currently living here. Norphel is giving these Buddhist people a few more precious years in the homes, landscapes, and communities that their ancestors have prepared them for, where their traditional songs and tales are set and their language is understood.
Gaia Vince is a journalist and broadcaster specializing in science and the environment. She has been the editor of the journal Nature Climate Change, the news editor of Nature, and the online editor of New Scientist. Her print journalism has been widely published in such publications as the Guardian, Scientific American, and the Times, and her broadcast journalism has been featured on the BBC. She resides in London.
From: Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by Gaia Vince (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Gaia Vince. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.
Top photo ©Serg Zastavkin/shutterstock.com. Chewang Norphel photo ©Athar Parvaiz/IPS