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In the Russian Far East, climate change is causing more and more permafrost to melt. The effects could ...
2018-12-05 10:00:00

On Thin Ice
The Changing Climate in Yakutia

Photo by Nikołaj Kozakow
On Thin Ice
On Thin Ice

“Very warm, only minus five degrees. No snowfall,” writes my friend from Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, complaining about the lack of winter. I ask other Yakut friends whether anyone remembers late October being so warm. Suoch, they answer unanimously, with the Yakut word for ‘no’. This time last year, it was -20°C. Everywhere is getting warmer, even Yakutsk; far into the mainland, covered in permafrost.

It was business as usual at first. In September, the frost set in. But then at the beginning of October, temperatures went up. There were puddles everywhere and the snow almost totally disappeared. A thaw set in, as never seen before in Yakutia. And then frost again, followed by more warming up. It used to be that once winter came, it was here to stay and you would expect the first thaw only in March. In any case, the Yakut language does not have any words for ‘thaw’; nor do the languages of the neighbouring Even, Evenki and Yukagir people. In some districts (called uluses) of Yakutia (which is 10 times larger than Poland) daily temperatures in late October have reached 3°C.

Even muncha, the traditional practice of fishing crucian carp for the coming winter, had to be carried out in many villages without snow and on thin ice. Muncha is one of the most important events of early winter in Yakutia, and leaves a snowy-white mark on every child’s memory. It’s the same everywhere. People from the villages gather on frozen lakes, cut ice holes and set nets. They play pranks, like surreptitiously dropping baby crucian carp down someone’s shirt. This year people had to tread carefully – on some lakes, cows had fallen through the ice in places where they usually drink from waterholes.

Warm days and cold nights resulted in heavy fogs, something previously unheard of at this time of year. On 22nd October, law enforcement services advised people to avoid travelling. Nearly 20 flights were cancelled, and ferry services on the Lena river were suspended (there are no bridges). Meteorologists emphasize that this is unusual. The famous mists and smog, which I described in my book Jakuck [Yakutsk], descend only in December and January.

But it’s not puddles, fog or even cows under the ice that worries experts and scientists, at least some of them. 50 years ago, vast taiga woodlands were cut down between Verkhoyansk Range and Chersky Range, 650 kilometres north-east of Yakutsk. Because of that, the earth and permafrost were exposed to sunlight. Just over a decade later, the sun melted a huge gash in the ground along the road used for transporting wood. The hole has expanded dramatically in the last few decades and is still getting bigger. Today the Batagaika crater is one kilometre long, up to 600 metres wide and 100 metres deep. You can find remains of a mammoth there; sometimes bones of bison, or the long-extinct Panthera spelaea cave lion. There are apparently other similar depressions, although not as huge as this one. And despite the fact that some of them are part of Yakutia’s landscape, you don’t have to be a scientist to realize that Batagaika is a portent of what may happen to permafrost in Yakutia, West Siberia and Canada in the coming years.

Scientists point out that if increasing temperatures lead to the thawing of permafrost, huge amounts of greenhouse gasses – carbon dioxide and methane – will be released into the atmosphere. At the same time, huge amounts of organic matter from the thawing ground will flow into the Arctic Ocean, changing its chemical composition. All of this would have irreversible consequences for climate. “But there were always thaws here,” Yakuts reply in internet discussions, listing many lakes that were created a long time ago when the sun melted the permafrost. Their ancestors used to drain such lakes, changing them into fertile pastures called alases. Alases (in the Yakut culture often portrayed as lands of bliss and happiness, filled with cows, horses and well-fed children) were related to kettle lakes. Only this time no lake was formed, just a huge hole in the ground that is getting bigger with every passing year.

 

Translated by Jan Dzierzgowski

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