In Siberia, climate change comes to the coldest village on earth

The Siberian village of Oymyakon is regarded as the coldest permanently-inhabited place on earth.

Though it is only a few degrees of latitude further north than Aberdeen, the village of 500 residents is in a mountain valley where cool air pools, isolated from warmer currents by the “Siberian high” pressure system and the Chersky range.

Yet even here, the effects of global warming are already being felt.

There are no walruses tumbling to their deaths like in David Attenborough’s new Our Planet series. (That was in the neighbouring Chukotka region.) But as the permafrost soil thaws in this region, thousands of people have had to move to new housing, forests are burning more often and animals face new predators and diseases.

When I arrived after a bumpy 26-hour journey on the gravel “road of bones” – which is built over the remains of gulag labourers – it was -22C in Oymyakon. Locals described this as “warm” as they took me for a bracing dip at a place where an underground stream prevents the river from freezing.

The next morning it was a more respectable -45C, cold enough to make a cup of hot water freeze instantly when we threw it into the air. Yet it was still far from the record of -68C recorded in the “Pole of Cold” in 1933.

“Severe frosts happen a lot less now,” said my host Tamara Vasilyeva, who was born in 1947.

I asked her what is considered a “severe frost” in Oymyakon. “Negative 60.”

It seems almost funny to discuss, but data shows that the average 10-year temperature has increased by one degree Celsius in Oymyakon since the 1930s, and by nearly two degrees in the regional capital Yakutsk. The yearly average temperature for the whole the region has risen by about three degrees in the past half century.

Weather is more erratic and the seasons are changing. Ducks and crows arrive earlier and stay later in the year, along with brightly-coloured birds from the south that residents haven’t seen before.

More heat means more wildfires, including 10 times more hotspots in the Russian Arctic, once almost fire-free, than a decade ago.

It’s also snowing more: a study last year found precipitation had increased in 70 per cent of the region of Yakutia in the past 50 years, insulating the soil under more snow and raising the spectre of greater flooding.

Last summer, president Vladimir Putin had to allocate more than £9 million in emergency funding to Yakutia to restore housing lost in flooding and wildfires. At least one person died fighting blazes that destroyed more than 1 million hectares of forest in the region.

The region is still very cold, but the seemingly small temperature changes are beginning to thaw the permanently frozen soil here.

In Yakutsk, construction engineer Eduard Romanov said the impact on buildings was visible. He pointed at the wall of the meeting room where we were sitting, which, on closer inspection, was riven by several metre-long cracks.

Most buildings in Yakutsk are built on concrete piles driven through an “active” surface layer, which sometimes thaws, into colder permafrost below. But this active layer, which has deepened from 2.7 metres on average to 3.5, is thawing and refreezing more often, slowly disintegrating the piles along with increased precipitation.

Stepping into the frosty air outside, we crossed the main square and immediately stumbled upon a building whose windows had gone drunkenly askew as the foundation warped.

Even the buildings of the Triumph stadium complex, which was hosting the freestyle Wrestling World Cup that weekend, were cracked in several places.

“We need to pay more attention to ongoing renovations. We can’t allow a catastrophe,” said city worker Olga Banschikova, displaying a digitised map with photographs of every building foundation in Yakutsk.

But all this is a drain on already cash-strapped budgets. Moscow has allocated £720 million to the region to resettle residents of condemned buildings in the next six years. Yakutsk alone has already resettled more than 6,000 people.

It’s plain to see that the biggest victims of climate change will be animals native to the area.

The lake islands where the Siberian crane nests to avoid danger are starting to flood more often, while new predators like the wolverine, sable and brown bear are moving north.

Pests like snakes, rats and new parasites have established a foothold in the region for the first time.

An uncertain future also awaits the reindeer, the linchpin of indigenous people’s livelihood across the north.

Of the 140,000 reindeer counted between the Yana and Indigirka rivers in 1990, only 2,000 remained last year, and scientists aren’t sure where the rest have gone, according to biologist Innokenty Okhlopkov.

Migration routes are changing as reindeer lichen disappears in warmer areas. More and more often, it rains and then freezes, covering the lichen with a layer of ice so the reindeer have difficulty eating.

“People in the north won’t be able to follow their traditional livelihood, reindeer herding and fishing,” Mr Okhlopkov said. “Everything will turn into a swamp.”

Anthrax, rare in recent years, has returned to Siberia with a vengeance as spores preserved in thawing permafrost enter the water cycle and food chain. An outbreak in the northern region of Yamal in 2016, which experts blamed on a record heat wave, killed some 2,000 reindeer and a 12-year-old boy. Yakutia has more animal burial grounds than any other region.

People in Yakutia know what a climate-related extinction event looks like: A major source of income in rural areas is gathering the tusks of woolly mammoths, who died out after the last ice age.

Yet there is little sense of threat here. Many still believe that global warming is caused not by human-generated emissions but by natural cycles.

At an Arctic forum this month, Mr Putin, who once joked climate change would save Russians money on fur coats, said his country was warming even faster than previously estimated.

But this was little more than an afterthought as he announced a new Arctic development strategy, including oil and gas infrastructure, ports and nuclear icebreakers on the northern sea route and tax breaks to draw investors to the north.

The situation was “sad for the bears,” Mr Putin admitted, but nonetheless the huge energy reserves in the Arctic needed to be extracted and “delivered in the service of humanity”.

Sweeping changes are necessary. Russia could start by ratifying the Paris climate agreement and setting a later baseline for emissions cuts than 1990, a year when Soviet factories were working at an inflated tempo.

But few are willing to make sacrifices to solve a global problem – sell the car, forego another pair of shoes, don’t fly for a weekend getaway – even when in the coldest place on earth, people know the climate is changing.

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