Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Engineering Glaciers

Glacier Man describes the efforts of a retired civil engineer, Chewang Norphel, to create "artificial glaciers" to act as reservoirs in the Himalayas.

Norphel spent his career building roads and bridges in rural Asia, working closely with the locals and using locally-available materials. Toward the end of his career he began to focus on water scarcity as disappearing glaciers and streams were threatening Himalayan farmers with starvation.

Norphel noticed that the spring snowmelt was largely supplied by large rafts of ice in forested areas - where shade prevented thaw until temperatures were warm enough to plant crops. He realized he could augment this process by building shallow reservoirs to collect and hold winter precipitation until the spring thaw - delivering water to the fields at the exact correct time for planting. Each of these artificial glaciers (he's built 10) costs 6-20 thousand dollars and unlike more expensive cement reservoirs, are capable of recharging the groundwater.

Norphel's glaciers currently supply water to 10,000 people, doubling their crop yields and allowing the production of valuable crops such as barley and potatoes. Although climate change is a serious threat to this very effective, locally-appropriate technique, he sees great opportunities in other dry, mountainous regions such as Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

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