Automation builds bigger, better ice tower reservoirs for high, dry farming
Towering artificial ice reservoirs called “ice stupas” have emerged since 2014 as an accessible way to store irrigation water in arid, high-altitude mountain villages. Now experiments with automated systems have shown that the construction of these giant icicles, which are 100 feet (30 meters) high, can be accomplished with about one-tenth the amount of water using manual methods, according to new research presented today at the Frontiers in Hydrology- meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico and online.
In the high, arid region of Ladakh, India, that improvement could make all the difference. The original, manual approach to the construction of ice stupas usually keeps the water flowing all winter long. Most water does not freeze and is lost. Cold temperatures help ice stupas grow, but temperatures that are too cold freeze water in the supply lines.
“At this point, in Ladakh, many of the ice structures have stopped building, not because the farmers chose to stop watering. It’s because the weather chose to stop working,” said Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian, a glaciologist at the University of Friborg in Switzerland.
The best solution is to drain the pipe before it freezes. The new automated approach avoided blocked pipes, using models and weather data to predict the optimal water spray time, duration and flow rate to efficiently build ice stupas, information the researchers say can also be applied manually.
Many ice stupas melted in the summer, but larger, more efficiently formed ice towers can last the following year, potentially becoming permanent structures that can provide a predictable water source year-round.
Balasubramanian speaks on Thursday, June 23, 2022 during a 7:00 PM EDT (UTC-4:00 PM) Live Streamed Discussion Session†
“The purpose of the experiment was to show that there is a better method for constructing these structures and there are simple lessons that we can learn. Why is that important? It shows that these structures are currently limited in their potential. They can grow much bigger and last much longer and consume much less water,” Balasubramanian said.
Ice stupas are made by allowing water to flow into the air in winter to fall and freeze into giant, icy stalagmites. The pipes and fountains needed to make these amazing icicles are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, meaning farmers can implement them without outside help. Large stupas can be built at a flow rate as low as 30 liters per minute, or 2-3 times the flow of a typical garden hose, if applied consistently over months, Balasubramanian said.
First developed in Ladakh, India, the method has been applied to arid, high-altitude sites in Chile and Kyrgyzstan. Located higher than 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level between the Karakorum Mountains and the Himalayas, Ladakh receives less than 10 centimeters (4 inches) of rain or snow each year. Irrigation networks in this arid region depend on timely meltwater from glaciers, snow and permafrost, which are becoming increasingly unreliable in a changing climate.
Spray less, spray smarter
Balasubramanian and colleagues tested an automated system that, based on models and weather data, checked how much water was sprayed, when and for how long. Preliminary results from drone measurements showed that the automated system used 13% of the amount of water used by the manual fountain system to create ice stupas that delivered the same or more meltwater. The automated systems also required no winter maintenance.
While the automated system is currently beyond the budget of most farmers using ice stupas, Balasubramanian said development and mass production could lower the price and make the system more user-friendly. The lessons learned from the automation experiments on how to optimize spray duration and water flow based on historical freezing rates in the environment can be applied by hand.
“We just scratched the surface of these structures because we’re only talking about Ladakh. But this isn’t just about this one location. It could be applied to many places, some of which are much, much colder. We don’t really know.” what is the upper limit,’ said Balasubramanian.
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Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian et al, The surprising weather conditions promoting artificial ice reservoirs (Icestupas) (2022). agu.confex.com/agu/hydrology22 … pp.cgi/Paper/1027738
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