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Glacier-Sailing with the Katabatic Winds
Hans-Joachim Fuchs

Last month, we read on Der Spiegel about a German researcher who was conducting an experiment into slowing or stopping altogether the melting of Alpine glaciers.

Geographer Hans-Joachim Fuchs in the western German city Mainz has another idea. He wants to harness the power of cold mountain winds — so-called kabatic [sic] winds, or streams of cold, dense air that flow downhill — with windscreens. The screens would keep the cool air on top of the glaciers, perhaps preserving them for a little while longer.

For some reasons — maybe because our attention was somewhere else, i.e., too many RSS feeds, too little brain cells — we thought Fuchs was using the windscreens as though they were sails, to catch the winds to thrust the glaciers away from the higher temperatures of lower elevations. Curioser, we began wondering if they could also work on the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica, where they will slow their march towards the sea. Or vice versa, if you want your glaciers to melt faster so you can increase your habitable territory, make oil exploration easier, and want to sell freshwater at exorbitant prices to water-parched countries.

Our full cognitive abilities did eventually return, but frankly, we should have just continued on misreading the article, because the real experiment is as absurd and farfetched as our own speculations.

“Something like that would certainly not be very effective,” says one glaciologist about Fuchs' idea.

“Even if you built a wind screen big enough, it's doubtful whether you could meaningfully alter the wind patterns,” says another glaciologist.

Fuchs is not a glaciologist.

Hans-Joachim Fuchs

Hans-Joachim Fuchs

Perhaps Fuchs and all the others should just forget about solving the local effects of climate change and directly combat global warming head on. Attack the virus, not the symptoms.

So for instance, Fuchs can re-conceptualize his windscreens as a source of sustainable energy. To do this, he may want to collaborate with Sheila Kennedy and his durable plastic curtains gets replaced with her photovoltaic curtains.

Sheila Kennedy

There isn't enough sun in the Alps, you say, not to mention Kennedy's electrified fabric probably isn't scalable from domestic use to industrial use?

In that case, forget the solar textiles; use piezoelectric curtains to harvest wind energy. Array them on the the sides of mountains and along the valleys to create katabatic tunnels and magnify the force and duration of the winds.

Meanwhile, with the snows gone and vegetation not yet well-established, rockslides will be more frequent. Solution: collaborate with Cemagref, the world leading institution in avalanche science. Ask them to engineer your mega-clothesline to act like a deflection or catchment dam when disasters strike. You will definitely need some anti-landslide protection, because developers would be lulled into a false sense of security and build where they shouldn't.

And if these anti-avalance protections aren't enough, you could always apply certain types of bacterium known to hold post-glacial soil together like cement.


You still say they won't generate enough electricity to make a difference, even if all of Europe's soon-to-be iceless mountains are curtained? Very well. Forget Europe.

Let's head to Nepal, Tibet, Peru, Bolivia, Eritrea and elsewhere cut off from the grid, where a now less extensive installation may not be enough to power the microwave and the washing machine and the space heater and the television and all the lightbulbs in the house at once but they will provide enough electricity to power the public water pump, the medical instruments in the clinic, the low-kilowatt fixtures in the school, and home radios.

Collaborate with FogQuest, and they could be turned into fog water collectors as well.

Fog Collectors

But to return to Europe and to Fuchs, his curtains may yet still have a meaningful effect if they were again re-conceptualized as an art installation, one that hopefully can bring even more attention to the local effects of global warming and forces people to question their lifestyles.

His ideas may be “crazy,” the butt of jokes among true glaciologists and climatologists, but at least with his frequent appearances in the mass media, more are now keenly aware that their precious glaciers are disappearing.

In an homage to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, he will title it: Running Fence v2.0.

Running Fence

Spiraling corkscrew-like from the zenith of the Matterhorn down to its base, they'll billow in the katabatic winds like Tibetan prayer rags, awaiting the passing of one landscape and the coming of another.
  • Anonymous
  • September 23, 2008 at 10:42:00 AM CDT
  • Obtaining water from the fog was first developed in Chile's northen village "El Tofo" back in the early 60's by Mr. Carlos Espinosa fom the Universidad Catolica del Norte. He even has an invention patent of the process. Evn back in the beggining of the 20th century it was already in use by several settlements in the north of Chile, specifically in the coast of the Atacama Desert.

  • Anonymous
  • September 23, 2008 at 10:51:00 AM CDT
  • Hopefully wondering about the applicability of the fog-water harvester in the SF Bay Area. The region is in the midst of a drought. In addition to foggy winter mornings (and afternoons), the region experiences foggy mornings during the summer, the drier season of the year.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • September 23, 2008 at 2:43:00 PM CDT
  • Hey Georgia, I think there is enough case studies (actually, there is a lot) for you to make informed decisions about their applicability in the Bay Area. Who knows, maybe there are some already harvesting water in your neck of the woods.

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