Fire and Ice

words by William Defebaugh

photograph by greg white

 

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by William Defebaugh

photograph by greg white

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In Greek mythology, it’s said that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and granted it to humans, a gift that was given to us and us alone. Fire has always been symbolic of what makes us unique as a species: our ability to innovate, by pouring our imagination into the proverbial forge.

 

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve seen the effects of our abusing that gift. As a result, the world is not only heating, it’s on fire.

 

Some are seeing this as an opportunity to innovate at new heights. Heliogen, a clean energy company backed by Bill Gates, revealed this week that it can now generate an amount of solar heat equivalent to a quarter of the sun’s surface temperature. Using artificial intelligence and mirrors, these “solar ovens” can replace fossil fuels in making cement, steel, and glass. “We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions,” says Bill Gross, Heliogen’s founder and CEO.

 

Just days later, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s new electric Cybertruck. And while it might look like something that was pulled out of a Bladerunner film, it continues to push the meter forward when it comes to electric transportation.

 

Meanwhile, in Ladakh, the desert region of the Western Himalayas where temperatures drops as low as -22° F and the altitude reaches as high as 15,000 feet above sea level, people have found an innovative approach to survival using a different element: ice. Villages in this region have traditionally depended on glacial run off for water, but in recent years, irregular snowfall and ice-melting have become the norm due to climate change. Enter the Ice Stupa Project: a local engineering initiative aimed at bringing fresh water supplies to Himalayan villages with artificial glaciers that range from 50 to 160 feet tall.

 

The human-made “Ice Stupas” borrow their name and likeness from the dome shapes often featured in Buddhist temples—a fitting connection for what could be called a saving grace for many peoples of the Himalayas. “In addition to their spiritual relevance and arresting beauty, they serve the purpose of producing water in spring, when water from natural glaciers is absent,” notes Athar Parvaiz, who reported on the structures for Atmos.

 

You may recall that in our first issue, we reported on a number of initiatives in local communities around the world that have been employing similarly creative solutions to adapt to the climate crisis. It’s exactly these groups of people who are most threatened by our warming world, and stand to lose the most in the years to come—making their innovations all the more vital.

 

If innovation represents the core of what makes us human and separates us from the rest of nature, the test now is whether or not we will be able to use this same engineering spirit to bring ourselves back to it.

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