Friday, December 25, 2009

The Glacier man

I never got an opportunity to meet Mr. Chewang Norphel but have heard a lot about him and his work. Mr. Norphel, inspired by the simple idea that water freezes faster if it is spread out and that direct sunlight melts ice faster, made something that transformed the lives of thousands of mountain agro-pastoralist. Using simple principles of freezing water and melting ice Mr. Norphel made an artificial glacier. Yes, a man-made glacier, mammoth in size and usefulness. The Science magazine covered an article about him and his work. I have pasted excerpts from the article. I will let the science mag explain the rest. While scientist are working to understand and conserve what we have, here we have an engineers who is trying to find ways to adapt to the change

STAKMO, INDIA—At more than 4000 meters above sea level in the trans-Himalayas, the air is so thin that it can be a struggle simply to breathe. Yet Chewang Norphel is almost jogging across the boulder-strewn landscape, with goatlike agility that belies his 74 years. Tonight, he will sleep in a tent 1000 meters higher up, at temperatures that dip 10°C below freezing, so as to continue his work in the morning. And what unusual work it is: Norphel makes glaciers. He takes a barren, high-altitude desert and turns it into a field of ice that supplies perfectly timed irrigation water to some of the world’s poorest farmers. So far, Norphel has built 10 artificial glaciers, which sustain crops that feed some 10,000 people. It’s become his obsession. “When it is very cold and very diff icult
work, I have to remain focused. All I can think about is making the most successful glacier,” he says. Legend has it that villagers in nearby Pakistan once grew glaciers to block Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors from advancing through mountain passes, but until Norphel came along there was little evidence that man could reliably duplicate this geological
trick. Thanks to his talent, Norphel is now known as “Glacier Man” among the locals in these mountains. Wearing a beige sweater, gray pants, and a pair of leather lace-up shoes, he looks more schoolteacher than superhero,
but Norphel has arguably pulled off something miraculous, doubling agriculture yields in one of the most climate-change ravaged regions in the world. Part engineer, hydrologist, and glaciologist, Norphel has had to create his own field of expertise. “What he has achieved in such circumstances, in remote parts of this mountainous desert, is remarkable,” says Pankaj Chandon, coordinator of the WWF-India’s High Altitude Wetlands Conservation Programme in the Himalayas, based in Leh, 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.”

Vanishing ice and a gush of inspiration
By the time Norphel retired in 1995, priorities among Ladakhis were shifting from roadbuilding to a far more serious problem: water scarcity. “Glaciers were vanishing and streams were disappearing,” Norphel says. “People would beg me to bring them water. Their irrigation systems were drying up and their harvests were failing. The government was starting to bring in grain rations.” In the so-called rain shadow of the Himalayas, Ladakh receives just 5 centimeters of rainwater a year—about the same as the Sahara desert. The population is entirely dependent on the melting of glaciers and snow. But global warming has hit this region particularly hard. The tree line has risen more than 150 meters during Norphel’s lifetime, and glaciers have retreated by as much as 10 kilometers. Above the small village of Stakmo, Norphel points up at the dark rock slopes rising from the valley. “There were two large glaciers here and here,” he says, “and many smaller ones that only persisted during wintertime.” The glaciers that remain are now far from the villages and at high altitudes where they don’t produce significant meltwater until May or June. That’s too late to help local farmers. Because they experience such a brief summer,
villagers must plant their one annual crop of barley, peas, or wheat by late March; otherwise it won’t mature before winter arrives in September, after which the temperature drops below –30°C. By the mid-’90s, Norphel was living in the small village of Skarra, a few kilometers outside of Leh, with his wife and a daughter they adopted from one of his brothers. Determined to address the irrigation problem, Norphel came upon inspiration within 100 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 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 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.

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