Building Glaciers on top of the World

Posted Monday, October 5, 2015 at 10:33 AM

"Their freshman conference paper turned into a high altitude, earth-changing project."

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Building Glaciers on top of the World

PostedMonday, October 5, 2015 at 11:39 AM

Matt Cichowicz
Matt Cichowicz
Building Glaciers on top of the World

Author: Matt Cichowicz

Located 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level, the Himalayan capital city of Leh in the Ladakh region of India has a high-desert climate—harsh winters, short summers, and very little rainfall. For centuries, farmers in Leh relied on the melting of glaciers to irrigate crops in the spring. But the rapid recession of natural glaciers has caused severe water shortages during the planting season.

Engineers began experimenting with giant reservoirs of ice to solve these irrigation problems in the late 1980s. Since then, a dozen “artificial glaciers” have been built throughout the Tibetan Plateau, but water scarcity still poses a serious threat to the future of agriculture in the region.

While freshman studying at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, Naomi Anderson and Taylor Shippling decided to use Google to find ideas for a paper they were writing as part of a first-year engineering conference. When they stumbled across the topic of artificial glaciers, they were immediately enthralled, but the information wasn’t exactly easy to track down.

“I expected to find a lot of data, drawings, reports, and papers on the topic, but we found almost none of those things,” says Naomi, “and writing the freshman conference paper was a challenge for this reason. It also showed the need for more study of the topic, especially at a technical level.”

Using all the resources they could find, Naomi and Taylor put their research together in a paper for the conference. They uploaded it to the university’s website, and once it went online, the two students began to realize the true value of their research and its contribution to the science of water resource engineering.

Carey Clouse, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and expert in climate change and landscape architecture of Northern India, cited the students’ work in a journal article. She was so impressed by their research that she invited them to accompany her on a research expedition to Leh. Naomi and Taylor spent two months studying artificial glaciers first-hand and got to meet the engineer who came up with the idea to build them.

Naomi Anderson and Taylor Shippling with Chewang Norphel“The original idea for artificial glaciers, according to the lead designer on the projects, came from noticing streams of water freezing in shady areas and continuing to flow in sunnier ones during the winter,” says Taylor. “Ladakh is definitely on the front lines of climate change, and the region's innovation and adaptability are things that we can all learn from.”

The University of Pittsburgh supported Naomi and Taylor’s trip to Leh through a number of sources including the Swanson School of Engineering undergraduate summer research internship program at the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, Pitt’s center for sustainable engineering. Kent Harries, a Pitt professor of civil and environmental engineering with experience working in the Himalayas, also offered his support by advising the students.

“As undergraduates, their situation was unique, but they took ownership of the project, grabbed hold of it, and ran with it,” said Harries. “I think they’re outstanding role models for anyone interested in studying the STEM fields.”

Naomi and Taylor have detailed what they learned from their expedition in a technical paper and hope to present their work next year at the Himalayan Studies Conference hosted by the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies in Austin, Tex. While completing their degrees, both students plan to continue researching water resources and civil engineering, make more contributions to the field, and see how far—or how high—their hard work will take them.

To learn more about their journey, check out Naomi and Taylor’s blog from Leh here: 

Filed Under Environment Civil Environmental Earth Resources