"It has definitely become much worse in recent years”, says Valentina Dmitrieva, coordinator for EYGE, a local environmental education NGO. "Yakutsk is the largest city ever built on permafrost, which makes the conditions for infrastructure and building a small nightmare. Nowadays all new houses are built on underground poles because it prevents damage when the permafrost subsides," says Valentina. All water, waste and gas pipelines in the city are constructed over-ground for the same reason, lining the streets like a huge obstacle course for the local residents.
Yakutsk is a remote place and the coldest city on the entire planet, with winter temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees Celsius and beyond. Visiting in summer is surprisingly hot, with the temperature climbing up to 30 degrees on the warmest days.
Located on the outskirts of the city is the Peter Melnikov Institute of Permafrost. Here researchers are working to identify how climate change is affecting the permafrost soils that cover 60 percent of Russia's landmass. One of them is Leonid Gagarin who specialises in ground water. "If the permafrost disappears this whole region will eventually turn to desert. The groundwater will be diverted so plants and trees will not even get enough water to survive," he says.
Leonid guides us to the Institutes's laboratory twelve metres underground. Inside the heavy icy door is a cast of Dima, a nine-month-old mammoth male that was found conserved and frozen next to the Lena River. In 1977 the riverbank eroded releasing the preserved mammal 40,000 years later into a whole new world. The freezing underground air makes it hard to breath, Leonid points at some icy branches protruding out from the wall. "They are over 10 000 years old. This is the type of organic material that concerns scientists," he says. If the Earth's permafrost defrosts, it is not only the conditions of the groundwater that will be affected. When the remains of ancient flora and fauna start to thaw, vast amounts of organic gases including methane and carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. "It looks like the permafrost is thawing really fast. By the right hand of Lena River there are springs of underground water. We are investigating if these are increasing," adds Leonid.
The permafrost temperatures in Yakutsk have increased 2 degrees during the last decades. Scientists from Nasa have measured the greatest climate warming on earth in Siberia. In the northern parts average temperatures have risen 1 to 3°C (3 to 5°F) over the past 30 years. The mean temperature in Siberia of the twentieth century is higher than during any similar period since AD 914.