How to grow a glacier
by Ted Alvarez  /  February 1, 2008

Villagers in the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains have practiced “glacier growing” for centuries, according to local legend. Historically, snowmelt often hasn’t provided enough water for crops or humans in the dry, high-altitude regions, so growing glaciers became crucial to survival. How did they do it? By combining “male” and “female” glaciers to grow the glaciers larger.

Before you laugh at what sounds like old-world witchcraft, consider this: Researcher Ingvar Tveiten from the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences seems to support the locals’ methods of glacier farming. While only a few villages still have glacier-growing elders, if Tveiten can refine and disseminate these techniques for glacier growing, it could go a long way to alleviating problems caused by population growth and glacier retreat in the poverty-plagued mountains of Central Asia.

So how does it work? Local tradition believes that there are two types of glaciers: “male” glaciers are covered in soil or stones and move hardly if at all, while “female” glaciers are whiter, grow faster and yield more water. Tradition also dictates that in order to grow a glacier, you need equal amounts of both types of glaciers — just like the birds and the bees, only colder.

Glacier growers “graft” glaciers together by selecting an already-existing patch of glacier, digging deep to expose “male” ice, and adding “female” ice to it, along with large boulders and rocks. They then insulate the grafted ice with charcoal, sawdust, wheat husk, nutshells or pieces of cloth, and add gourds of water which will burst and then freeze, bonding the two together and encouraging ice to grow between the boulders.

Snowmelt trapped in the young glacier freezes, creating more ice, and cold air pockets moving between the rocks and ice keep the glacier cool. When the newly created frozen mass is heavy enough, it begins to creep downhill, forming a self-sustaining glacier within four years or so. The end result is not quite a true glacier, but growing and flowing areas of ice many tens of meters long have been reported at the sites of these grafts.

Locals are convinced of the efficacy of all that heavy lifting, and the Pakistani government has been funding glacier growing efforts for several decades. They’ve since reported increased water flows in many of the villages that hav undertaken glacier-growing projects. While the practice has its skeptics — glacier growers generally “grow” ice in areas prone to ice accumulation, namely on slopes above 4500 meters in north-west-facing cirques of steep cliffs, and often atop already advancing glacier slopes — there seems to be real merit to their efforts.

Hermann Kreutzmann, a glaciologist at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, witnessed a ceremony in Hunza, near Gilgit, in 1985. “It seemed very plausible to me to search for a specific location at the appropriate altitude with a tolerable temperature regime and to place ice there,” he says. As ice can absorb and retain water, he reckons that “a substantial amount of ice in a proper location might indeed augment water supplies”.

In the meantime, Tveiten hopes to augment the already existing cultural methods for growing glaciers with techniques from modern research. “It would have to be about enhanced freezing or capture of available moisture in solid form,” he says. This could occur through cold air drainage, evaporative cooling, and possibly deposition of rime or frost. “Given the exact setting and practices of glacier planting, I suspect they are designed to reproduce conditions known to involve evaporative cooling across the freezing point.” I’m quite thirsty myself, and all this talk of glacier growing is inspiring me to go build my own glacier on a Northwest cirque in my backyard. I hope it’s a boy.
How to grow a glacier
by Ed Douglas  /  02 February 2008

BACK in the 13th century, when news of Genghis Khan and his marauding Mongol hordes reached what is now northern Pakistan, the people there came up with an unlikely means of keeping them out. According to local legend, villagers blocked the mountain passes by simply growing glaciers across them. Whether or not these stories are true, the art of glacier growing – also known as glacial grafting – has been practised for centuries in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges. It was developed as a way to improve water supplies to villages in valleys where glacial meltwater tended to run out before the end of the growing season. Now, as these remote mountain communities come under pressure from population growth and climate change, researchers and development agencies are starting to take a serious look at whether growing new glaciers can really stop mountain streams from running dry.

Legends aside, no one really knows when the first glacier was grown in this region. Inayatullah Faizi, assistant professor in social sciences at the Government Degree College at Chitral in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province, cites evidence of a glacier being grown for irrigation purposes as long ago as 1812. However, the first documented reference to the practice does not appear until more than a century later when a British colonial administrator called D.L.R. Lorimer reported it in the 1920s. Though Lorimer described the practice as obsolete, partly thanks to guaranteed food supplies from the British Raj, the traditions of glacier growing survived.

Today, the skills and know-how needed to grow glaciers are kept alive by a handful of village elders. Ghulam Rasool is one of them. At 77, he is resident glacier-growing expert in the village of Hanouchal Haramosh in the Karakoram mountains. Like many communities in the area, Hanouchal Haramosh struggles with an uncertain water supply. Most precipitation falls as snow at altitude, while the inhabited valleys stay largely dry. To irrigate their fields, villagers rely on snow melting up in the mountains, but by the end of the growing season most of the previous winter’s snow has gone. The water dries up, and crop yields suffer.

Secure supply
Other villages are luckier. They have a glacier melting into their watershed, and because this is a permanent supply of ice and because ice melts more slowly than fresh snow, the water supply lasts longer and is more predictable. If it really were possible to grow a glacier, this could be a lifeline for communities battling glacier retreat and under pressure to grow more food to feed a growing population. It’s a question that prompted Ingvar Tveiten from the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås to begin the most comprehensive study so far of the methods and rituals of glacier growing.

In the study, which Tveiten published last year as his master’s thesis, he reports that growing a glacier takes a lot more than piling up any old snow and ice and waiting for it to freeze. According to local tradition, Tveiten says, glaciers have a gender. A “male” glacier is one that is covered in stones and soil and moves slowly or not at all. A “female” one is whiter, and grows more quickly, yielding more water. “It is important to have both sexes,” a glacier grower from the village of Ghwari in Baltistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told Tveiten, “The ice which we found underneath the rocks in our own valley was only of one sex. Therefore it didn’t increase. We had to add the opposite sex to it so it could increase.”

Finding the right site is also crucial. Tveiten reviewed 12 sites where glaciers have been grown, and visited five of them. Almost all were located at altitudes above 4500 metres, and most were in a north-west-facing cirque of steep cliffs. Avalanches and rockfall from these cliffs are, according to local people, an important part of the process. Once the site is selected, ice is brought to rocky areas where there are small boulders about 25 centimetres across. The rocks protect the ice from sunlight, and often have ice trapped in the gaps between them. This seems to be critical to a successful “planting”. Common to most of the successful artificial glaciers, Tveiten says, is the existence of ice at the site before work starts, and glacier growers will often dig for a metre or more through talus or scree to find this in-situ “male” ice.

After they have added female to the male ice (traditionally by importing 12 man-loads or about 300 kilograms of the stuff), they cover the area with charcoal, sawdust, wheat husk, nutshells or pieces of cloth to insulate it. Gourds of water placed among the ice and rocks are also critical to a glacier’s chances of forming, according to Tveiten. As the glacier grows and squeezes the gourds, they burst, spreading water on the surrounding ice, which then freezes. Any snowmelt trapped in the budding glacier also freezes, adding more ice. Pockets of cold air moving between the rocks and ice keep the glacier cool. When the mass of rock and ice is heavy enough, it begins to creep downhill, forming a self-sustaining glacier within four years or so. What’s produced is hardly a glacier in the proper sense, but growing and flowing areas of ice many tens of metres long have been reported at the sites of earlier grafts.

Cold comfort
So does it work? There is no shortage of anecdotal accounts of successful grafts. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), an NGO based in Baltistan, cites several examples of long-lasting artificial glaciers. One has been providing water since the 1940s, and another is claimed to have been grafted in the 16th century. The AKRSP has found these accounts convincing enough to fund the grafting of 17 new glaciers to improve water supply in villages with limited access to meltwater. It also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pakistani government to extend its activities to more villages in Baltistan and in the nearby Gilgit region. The Parbat Social Welfare Organisation, a community group based in Chilas, south of Gilgit, has funded at least 10 more since 2003.

Local people are convinced that it’s worth the effort. When Tveiten visited, Ghulam Rasool’s village in eastern Gilgit, 18 of the 20 people he interviewed claimed that a glacier planted in the 1950s, and still in place today, increased water supply later in the season. Many people believed that the glacier had allowed them to cultivate up to 50 per cent more land, and that it has increased water flows in the critical period late in the growing season when crops mature. Local people also say the new glacier has grown to the point where it now stretches some 800 metres down from where it was planted.

The AKRSP is also claiming success with its more recent glacier plantings. Sher Khan, a water and environmental engineer with the AKRSP, reported in 2005 that five of 15 communities reported increased water flows late in the season, with other glaciers also growing. Since then two more glaciers have been planted, and Nazir Ahmad of the AKRSP says villagers continue to report that this has boosted their water supplies. Tveiten is more sceptical: he suspects that in many cases, similar quantities of ice would have developed without any human intervention. “Glacier growing is conducted at locations which are already very prone to ice accumulation,” he observes. He also suggests that “planting” a glacier on a frozen talus slope that is already advancing may give a false impression that human intervention has had an impact.

Calling the accumulated ice a “glacier” may also be an exaggeration at times. Tveiten visited one site in the valley above the village of Balghar, where grafting took place in 2000. This was done by placing 300 kilograms of ice, water, coal and sawdust under a 15-metre boulder inside a cave in a position where the ice was shielded from sunlight. Tveiten says he saw a metre-thick mass of ice under the entire length of the boulder. That’s quite an accumulation of ice, but hardly a glacier, and it’s questionable whether such accumulations could significantly increase the amount water that is available.

But as Tveiten also points out, analysing glacier growing only in technical terms may miss an important point. The practice is associated with many traditional ceremonies and rituals that help bind the community together. For people living in such a harsh environment, the experience gives them an important sense of control of their future. Others, however, are convinced there is more to it than that. Hermann Kreutzmann, a glaciologist at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, witnessed a ceremony in Hunza, near Gilgit, in 1985. “It seemed very plausible to me to search for a specific location at the appropriate altitude with a tolerable temperature regime and to place ice there,” he says. As ice can absorb and retain water, he reckons that “a substantial amount of ice in a proper location might indeed augment water supplies”.

Kenneth Hewitt from the Cold Regions Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, witnessed a glacier planting in Baltistan in 1961, making him possibly the first westerner to do so. “In literal, western terms I don’t think they grow glaciers,” he says. “It would be very easy to say this is all hokum, mumbo-jumbo, but I don’t believe that either,” he adds. “The people involved are, on their own terms, extremely practical and knowledgeable about their environment.”

Hewitt agrees with Tveiten that the social value of glacier growing is important, particularly as a way to help ease communal anxiety during periods of climatic stress. But he is also interested in working out a physically plausible basis for the practice. “It would have to be about enhanced freezing or capture of available moisture in solid form,” he says. This could occur through cold air drainage, evaporative cooling, and possibly deposition of rime or frost. “Given the exact setting and practices of glacier planting, I suspect they are designed to reproduce conditions known to involve evaporative cooling across the freezing point.” Khan hopes that the work being done by the AKRSP will encourage more researchers to investigate whether glacier growing can be used to provide water for expanding communities – not just in Pakistan, but also in mountain communities in other parts of the world. Researchers as far away as the Andes, where the terrain is similar, have already shown some interest. As more studies get under way, we may soon find out if the legend can survive scrutiny by modern science.

Ingvar Tveiten
e-mail: itveiten [at] yahoo [dot] com

“Glacier Growing – a Local Response to Water Scarcity in Baltistan and Gilgit, Pakistan.”
BY Ingvar Tveiten  /  2007

“People in the districts of Baltistan and Gilgit practice ‘glacier growing’ with the intention of making glaciers that will enhance water availability. This is done by placing ice from natural glaciers inside caves dug out from talus-slopes at altitudes between 4000 and 5000 m a.s.l. Apart from the ice; gourds containing water are also added to the interior of the cave. A layer of charcoal and sawdust is then put on top of the ice to provide insulation. In addition to the human contribution of ice; the locations where glacier growing is conducted accumulate large amounts of snow by drift and avalanche activity. At these sites the ground is perennially frozen, which provide conditions conducive to ice accumulation in talus-slopes, sometimes leading to the formation of rock glaciers.

This study is an exploration of the practice of glacier growing and of its implications for water management in Gilgit and Baltistan. After observation of five glacier growing sites, and by informal interviews with practitioners of glacier growing, a grounded theory of glacier growing is arrived at. That is, a theory that is based on categories and concepts used by the local people who participate in glacier growing. Glacier growing is further interpreted within the context of the scientific discipline of glaciology in order to account for how natural processes affect the sites of glacier growing.

Glaciers have a big impact on the lives of people in the studied area and provide benefits by evening out river discharges, but may also become a peril when advancing onto cultivated land, destroying irrigation canals and roads, and damming up rivers. Perhaps this is also why people of this region perceive of glaciers as living entities endowed with gender and responsive to human action. The gender division of glaciers also bears implications for how glacier growing is performed, as it is seen as necessary to bring together ‘female’ and ‘male’ ice to make the glacier grow. The perception of glaciers as animated is in this thesis understood as an important condition for how ‘glacier growing’ comes to be regarded as a feasible method to make new glaciers.”

“Artificial Glaciers” Aid Farmers in Himalayas
by Pallava Bagla / September 4, 2001

Life is never easy for the hard-working Buddhist people of northern India’s Ladakh region, which lies high in the inner Himalayas between China and Pakistan. The thin air of the high altitude takes its toll, and the landscape—known geographically as a cold desert—is barren and rocky. The biggest problem for villagers, however, is a perpetual shortage of water. Less than seven centimeters of rain falls annually in Ladakh. Water is at a premium all year round, but the shortage is especially felt in March or April, when farmers must sow their crops. Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer, wanted to find a way to help the peasants of Ladakh, where he grew up. His solution was the first known technique of its kind: creating “artificial glaciers” to capture and channel precious snowmelt that otherwise would be wasted.

The technology, basically a network of pipes, is simple and relatively cheap to build. So far Norphel has helped Ladakhi peasants construct five artificial glaciers to increase water supplies in their villages, especially for crop irrigation. Several more are being planned. Although the experiment in Ladakh is still small and site specific, word about its success is spreading. Some observers think the technique may one day bring relief to many other water-starved villages around the world that face similar conditions. “I have not visited the site, but if it is successful, it is a remarkable achievement,” said V. C. Thakur, a geologist and former director of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, India. “I have never heard of an example like this from anywhere else in the world,” he added. In recognition of his achievement, the Far Eastern Economic Review honored Norphel with an Asian Innovation Award in 1999.

Simple Technology
At altitudes of more than 14,000 feet, the severe climate and inhospitable terrain means Ladakh’s peasants are able to plant and harvest only a single crop each year—wheat, barley, or peas. It seldom rains in the area, so farmers are heavily dependent on glacier melt to supply water for irrigation. Yet the short sowing season sometimes begins and ends before the bulk of natural glacier meltwater begins to flow to the region. During the many years he worked for the Jammu and Kashmir Rural Development Department, Norphel saw first-hand how much the people of his region suffered when irrigation water was unavailable when critically needed. He wanted to help alleviate the ongoing water shortage, but his bureaucratic job did not allow him much scope for experimentation. What sparked the technique that has now been proven successful was a simple observation in his hometown of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He noticed that in winter, the water taps were usually kept fully open so the water would run continuously and not freeze. The water flowed into drains surrounding the tap and froze, essentially wasted. “While there was such a shortage of water at the start of the cropping season, I saw a lot of water just running off and getting wasted in winter,” said Norphel. “And it is then that it occurred to me, why not try and make artificial glaciers in the vicinity of the villages so that local farmers get a real head start in the supply of water when they most need it.”

An opportunity to experiment came soon after his retirement from government service. While working for the Leh Nutrition Project, a local non-governmental organization, he decided to try implementing his dream of making artificial glaciers as a means of supplying irrigation water. “I thought if we could control the streams and freeze the water in artificial glaciers, it could provide farmers with water when they need it most,” Norphel said. Using common sense and with no advanced knowledge of physics, he constructed the first artificial glacier from stone embankments and a few hundred meters of iron pipes. Norphel’s technique is remarkably simple. First, water from an existing stream is diverted through iron pipes to a shady area of the valley. From there, the water is made to flow out onto a sloping hill face. At regular intervals along the mountain slope, small stone embankments are situated to impede the flow of water, thus forming shallow pools. All this is done before the onset of winter. During the winter, as temperatures fall steadily, the water collected in the small pools freezes. Once this cycle has been repeated over many weeks, a thick sheet of ice forms, resembling a long, thin glacier.

On-time Irrigation
Farmers in the village of Changla, about a day’s travel from Leh, see the diminutive Norphel as something of a messiah who offered them relief from the acute water shortage they used to face immediately after the harsh winters had ended. The cropping window, or period in which cultivation can be done, lasts seven months before severe winter arrives in October. Any delay in sowing crops can wipe out a harvest because the crop may not mature in time to beat the cold weather. Today, the residents of Changla can sow their crops on schedule thanks to the artificial glacier that Norphel constructed on the mountain slopes above their village.

Phunsok, a farmer from Changla, said Norphel’s handiwork has been a big boon for the area. “The true merit of the technology,” he said, “lies in the low cost and the minimal maintenance that is required for the upkeep of these artificial glaciers.” Sonam Dawa, executive director of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group in Leh, is also enthusiastic about Norphel’s achievement. “Artificial glaciers are the cheapest option to the irrigation water needs of this inhospitable cold desert.” The novel technique, he added, “offers an elegant solution for the most critical first watering of crops.” The largest artificial glacier Norphel has built so far is near the village of Phuktsey. About 1,000 feet (300 meters) in length and 150 feet (45 meters) wide, it has an average depth of 4 feet (one meter) and can supply irrigation water to the entire village of about 700 people. Norphel says it was built at a cost of about U.S. $2,000.

Growing Interest
The use of artificial glaciers as a solution for unreliable water supply is very site specific, so how widely the technology could be adopted elsewhere depends on local conditions. But interest is growing. In areas of northern Pakistan, especially the Gilgit region, a major project sponsored by an international non-governmental organization called the Aga Khan Rural Support Program has begun building artificial glaciers in an attempt to overcome local drought-like conditions. According to the Sustainable Development Networking Program (SDNP) in Islamabad, part of the goal is to make the highest areas of the region green and to increase the quantity of water in the Indus River. The first artificial glacier was constructed on a trial basis in Haramosh. SDNP says the local community is currently obtaining sufficient quantities of water from it for agricultural and household purposes. The project in Pakistan is now being expanded to seven more sites in the region.


Chewang Norphel, 76, has “built” 12 new glaciers already and is racing to create five more before he dies. By then he hopes he will have trained enough new “icemen” to continue his work and save the world’s “third icecap” from being transformed into rivers. His race against time is shared by Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister who called on the region’s Himalayan nations, including China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, to form a united front to tackle glacial melting. The great Himalayan glaciers, including Kashmir’s Siachen glacier, feed the region’s most important rivers, which irrigate farm land in Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh and throughout the Indian sub-continent. The apparent acceleration in glacial melting has been blamed for the increase in floods which have destroyed homes and crops.

Chewang Norphel, the “Iceman of Ladakh”, however believes he has an answer. By diverting meltwater through a network of pipes into artificial lakes in the shaded side of mountain valleys, he says he has created new glaciers. A dam or embankment is built to keep in the water, which freezes at night and remains frozen in the absence of direct sunlight. The water remains frozen until March, when the start of summer melts the new glacier and releases the water into the rivers below. So far, Mr Norphel’s glaciers have been able to each store up to one million cubic feet of ice, which in turn can irrigate 200 hectares of farm land. For farmers, that can make the difference between crop failure and a bumper crop of more than 1,000 tons of wheat. The “iceman” says he has seen the effects of global warming on farmland as snows have become thinner on the ground and ice rivers have melted away never to return. His own work has now been recognised by the Indian government, which has given him £16,000 to build five new glaciers. But time is his enemy, he told The Hindustan Times. “I’m planning to train villagers with instruction CDs that I have made, so that I can pass on the knowledge before I die,” he said.