[Marxism] Russian Land of Permafrost and Mammoths Is Thawing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 4 12:46:57 MDT 2019


(Last year I reviewed a great documentary titled "Genesis 2.0" about the 
hunt for Woolly Mammoth skeletons in Yakutsk: 
https://louisproyect.org/2018/12/30/genesis-2-0/. Unfortunately, the 
only way to see this film is to buy the DVD for $20 on Amazon. If this 
article and my review interest you, I'd urge you to buy the DVD because 
the issues it raises are truly mind-boggling.)


NY Times,  Aug. 4, 2019
Russian Land of Permafrost and Mammoths Is Thawing
By Neil MacFarquhar

YAKUTSK, Russia — The lab assistant reached into the freezer and lifted 
out a football-size object in a tattered plastic grocery bag, unwrapping 
its muddy covering and placing it on a wooden table. It was the severed 
head of a wolf.

The animal, with bared teeth and mottled fur, appeared ready to lunge. 
But it had been glowering for some 32,000 years — preserved in the 
permafrost, 65 feet underground in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia.

As the Arctic, including much of Siberia, warms at least twice as fast 
as the rest of the world, the permafrost — permanently frozen ground — 
is thawing. Oddities like the wolf’s head have been emerging more 
frequently in a land already known for spitting out frozen woolly 
mammoths whole.

The thawing of the permafrost — along with other changes triggered by 
global warming — is reshaping this incredibly remote region sometimes 
called the Kingdom of Winter. It is one of the coldest inhabited places 
on earth, and huge; Yakutia, if independent, would be the world's eighth 
largest country.

The loss of permafrost deforms the landscape itself, knocking down 
houses and barns. The migration patterns of animals hunted for centuries 
are shifting, and severe floods wreak havoc almost every spring.

The water, washing out already limited dirt roads and rolling corpses 
from their graves, threatens entire villages with permanent inundation. 
Waves chew away the less frozen Arctic coastline.

Indigenous peoples are more threatened than ever. Residents joust 
constantly with nature in unpredictable ways, leaving them feeling 
baffled, unsettled, helpless, depressed and irritated.


“Everything is changing, people are trying to figure out how to adapt,” 
said Afanasiy V. Kudrin, 63, a farmer in Nalimsk, a village of 525 
people above the Arctic Circle. “We need the cold to come back, but it 
just gets warmer and warmer and warmer.”

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the shifts are especially 
pronounced in Russia, where permafrost covers some two-thirds of the 
country at depths ranging up to almost a mile.

“People don’t comprehend the scale of this change, and our government is 
not even thinking about it,” said Aleksandr N. Fedorov, deputy director 
of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute, a research body in Yakutsk, the 
regional capital.

In Yakutia, almost 20 percent of Russia, distances are vast and 
transportation erratic. The population is just under one million. 
Natives joke that every resident could claim one lake.

Yakutia’s 33 districts are the size of countries. In the far northeast, 
the Srednekolymsk district, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, 
is slightly smaller than Greece. Just 8,000 residents live in 10 
villages, including 3,500 in the capital, also Srednekolymsk.

The region has been a synonym for remote for centuries. Empress 
Elizabeth exiled the first prominent political prisoner to Srednekolymsk 
in 1744, when it took a year to reach overland from St. Petersburg. 
There are just two main highways transiting Yakutia, with the one built 
mostly by Gulag prisoners under Communism still largely unpaved.

In Srednekolymsk, summer used to last from June 1 to Sept. 1, but now 
extends a couple weeks longer on both ends. Outsiders might not notice 
that the thermometer in January often hovers around -50 F, rather than 
-75 F. Residents call -50 “chilly.”

In a regionwide pattern, the average annual temperature in Yakutsk has 
risen more than four degrees, to 18.5 F from 14 F, over several decades, 
said Mr. Fedorov of the permafrost institute.

Warmer winters and longer summers are steadily thawing the frozen earth 
that covers 90 percent of Yakutia. The top layer that thaws in summer 
and freezes in winter can extend down as far as 10 feet where three feet 
used to be the maximum.

Eroding cliffs on riverbanks expose other areas, like where the wolf 
head appeared, that had long been deeply buried.

Across Yakutia, farmers have replaced tens of thousands of cows with 
native horses who eat less hay, but produce less milk. The market for 
their meat is limited.CreditEmile Ducke for The New York Times
The thawing permafrost, and increased precipitation, have made the land 
wetter. The snow and rain create a vicious circle, forming an insulating 
layer that speeds defrosting underground.

Water backing up behind ice floes now causes ravaging floods virtually 
every May.

In Srednekolymsk last year, floods swamped the dirt airstrip, with its 
separate outhouses for men and women. Often battered Soviet turboprops 
are the lifeline to the world, but the airstrip had to close for a week.

Nalimsk, 11 miles north of Srednekolymsk, has flooded five years in a 
row. Mosquitoes grown fat in the expanding bogs swarm like kamikaze 
pilots. “Free acupuncture!” joked Vasily P. Okoneshnikov, 54, the 
village headman.

Plump black Turpan ducks used to arrive regularly during the first week 
of June. This year migrating birds began to descend on May 1. There were 
far fewer Turpans, and suddenly geese, a novelty.

Elsewhere, the migration routes of wild reindeer have shifted, while 
unfamiliar insects and plants inhabit the woods.

Nalimsk hunters once stored their fish and game in a 22-foot deep cave 
dug out of the permafrost, a kind of natural freezer. Now its thawing 
walls drip water, and the meat rots.

“We buy meat and it is no good, too dry,” Mr. Okoneshnikov said. “We 
have no choice, even if it’s shameful” to shop, rather than hunt.

Farther north, residents refuse to abandon their waterlogged, riverfront 
villages, afraid of losing access to whitefish, their staple diet.

The village of Beryozovka has flooded virtually every spring for a 
decade, its 300 residents forced onto boats for weeks to run errands 
like buying bread. They finally accepted a five-year project to move the 
village 900 yards uphill.

In the district, Beryozovka has the only concentration of Even people, 
one of various dwindling indigenous tribes.

The Even, who are reindeer herders, were settled only in 1954 through a 
government drive. They speak a distinct language; individual clans 
inherit ancestral songs.

“At some point they talked about abandoning the village, but people did 
not want to move out,” said Octyabrina R. Novoseltseva, chairwoman of 
the Northern Indigenous People’s Association in the Srednekolymsk 
region. “They would lose everything, the culture would all disappear.”

The government in distant Moscow is an abstract concept. Alaska is 
closer. Villagers throughout Yakutia bemoan relying on their own 
resources to adapt to climate change.

Even state-run institutions like the permafrost institute lack the means 
for the complicated field work needed to assess the full extent of 
permafrost loss. Nor can they gauge other fallout, like how much methane 
that microbes in the newly thawed ground produce, adding to global warming.

“We do not really monitor the situation, so we just have to see what it 
brings,” said Yevgeny M. Sleptsov, the head of the Srednekolymsk 
district, as he piloted a fishing boat along the Kolyma River at 10 p.m. 
in the muted light of the endless Arctic day.

The government is also unable to do much about other environmental 
problems, including wildfires surging through millions of acres of 
remote forest across Yakutia and the rest of Siberia. Reaching them is 
too costly.

In 1901, the first woolly mammoth discovered whole in the permafrost 
emerged from a riverbank near Srednekolymsk, an event immortalized with 
a stylized red mammoth on the town’s shield.

But thawing permafrost is exposing more of the huge hairy beasts, which 
roamed a more temperate northern Siberia 10,000 years ago. And with 
agriculture and hunting unreliable, more locals are looking for them.

Digging for mammoths is illegal, so the hunters are secretive, but one 
ivory tusk sold to China can earn $16,000 — enough to live on for a year.

Tusk hunters unearthed the Pleistocene wolf head stored in the 
Department of Mammoth Studies at the Academy of Science in Yakutsk.

The loss of permafrost also afflicts the capital, Yakutsk. Subsiding 
ground has damaged about 1,000 buildings, said the mayor, Sardana 
Avksentieva, while roads and sidewalks require constant repair.

As the permafrost thaws across Yakutia, some land sinks, transforming 
the terrain into an obstacle course of hummocks and craters — called 
thermokarst. It can sink further to become swamps, then lakes. From the 
air, thermokarst looks as if giant warts are plaguing the earth. It 
makes plowing or grazing on formerly flat fields impossible.

In Srednekolymsk, after a local veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine 
went berserk, shooting dead a police officer and then himself, the 
police preserved his corpse in an old natural freezer carved out of the 
underground permafrost.CreditEmile Ducke for The New York Times

The skeleton of a mammoth in the lobby that the Museum of Archaelogy and 
Ethnography shares with the Museum of Mammoths in Yakutsk. CreditEmile 
Ducke for The New York Times
Thermokarsts besiege the Churapcha region, 120 miles east of Yakutsk.

Thirty-three families once inhabited the northern part of Usun-Kyuyol, a 
village of 750 people. After their cow barns and fences repeatedly 
collapsed, 10 families decamped. Those remaining feel beleaguered.

To find flat, dry land to grow hay, farmers work further and further away.

Across Yakutia, farmers have replaced tens of thousands of cows with 
native horses. Horses consume less hay, but produce less milk, and the 
market for their meat is limited. They also die in droves when their 
hooves cannot penetrate thicker snow and ice to forage.

Nikolai S. Makarkov, 62, is building a new house. He tired of jacking up 
his old one after it sank four times so that the doors would not open. 
Water also seeped underneath, rotting the floorboards and freezing in 
winter, chilling the interior.

Years ago, the village road ran straight, with log cabins and cow barns 
arrayed along its length. Now the potholed muddy track meandering among 
the hummocks barely resembles a road. Abandoned houses tilt at odd angles.

“There might as well have been a war here,” said Mr. Makarkov, whose new 
house is raised off the ground on pillars sunk 16 feet, where there is 
still permafrost. “Soon there will be no flat land left in this village. 
I only have 30-40 years to live, so hopefully my new house will last 
that long.”



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