At first, they laughed.
Welcome to the rooftop of the world.
This is the story of a man who spent 40 years in the Himalayas watching glaciers melt. One day, he figured out how to do that himself — in reverse.
Ladakh sits at the northernmost tip of India, high in the mountains. Life here is not what anyone would call easy — average rainfall in these mountain villages where most people are farmers is less than two inches a year. Farmers in Ladakh have traditionally relied on glacial meltwater for their spring crops.
But climate change is creating a whole new challenge. The climate has been drier and warmer, with irregular, sometimes torrential rains. The glaciers in the Himalayas are melting faster than any other glaciers on the planet, and when water does come, there's too much of it at once. Basically, the farmers have a storage problem.
This is Chewang Norphel, who came from a farming family and spent his whole career as a civil engineer here. Watching farmers struggle to grow crops (only to give up and migrate to eke out a meager living in the city), Norphel focused his work on how to capture water in the winter and store it until spring when farmers need it.
While watching a small stream freeze when it flowed into the shade of some trees near his house, Norphel realized that he could imitate that process on a bigger scale. He could create a small glacier.
People laughed when I first presented the idea. They said, 'What crazy man are you? How can anyone make a glacier?'
— Chewang Norphel
While "growing glaciers" is not a totally new idea, Norphel had to convince people that he could build these glaciers large enough and close enough to villages to be useful to people. His early attempts in the 1990s worked so well that people were soon offering to help him construct more.
How did he do it?
His method involves channeling glacial meltwater to the shady side of a mountain.
Half-inch-wide iron pipes are placed perpendicularly to the edge of a small reservoir dug in the shaded area, where the water is collected. As the gradually freezing water seeps into the pipes, frozen blocks are pushed out the other side, and a neat, artificial glacier emerges. The glacier remains frozen until the spring when it begins to melt and water flows down to where farmers can use it.
Norphel's work is now being continued by younger engineers he's mentored. Sonam Wangchuk is using Norphel's ideas to create giant ice pyramids (which will melt more slowly), which he's dubbed ice stupas in honor of the dome-shaped shrines of the region.
As the search for climate solutions continues, the "ice man" is an innovator who has made a difference. He's been widely recognized for his contributions, even being named a climate hero. Check out his story below:
And for some fun, catch the Bollywood movie trailer that honors him too!