Climate change pushes Siberians to tread on thin ice — literally

An illegal winter road on the Lena ice - Maria Turchenkova
Kostya Germogin sits in his van in a snowy parking lot, waiting to be charged before driving across a frozen, mist-shrouded river.
However, this is not a normal river crossing. Every year when the ice on the Lena River stops operating the ferry, it eventually becomes thick enough to serve as a makeshift road bridge to the nearby city of Yakutsk.
Or at least sooner. With global temperatures now affecting even Siberian cities like Yakutsk - one of the coldest places in the world - the time comes when Lena ice is declared safe enough to continue sailing later every year.
However, Mr Germogin has a living to make and has no time to wait for the official all-clear, which would normally have come weeks ago. So he makes his way across the ice sheet - undeterred by the danger of falling through the ice, a fate that kills numerous drivers every year.
The goods are transferred to a smaller truck to bypass weight restrictions on the ice roads - Maria Turchenkova
Just two weeks earlier, on the same route on the Lena, a van fell through and the driver and three passengers were lucky enough to flee.
"Of course I'm scared," says the 33-year-old Germogin, who does not turn the engine off because he fears it will never start again in the freezing cold.
“But you have to get used to it. There is no other choice. We have to get the goods to the other side. "
Ice roads have long been part of the traffic infrastructure around Yakutsk, where temperatures sometimes drop to minus 64 ° C.
Since winter lasts the better half of the year, the residents rely on it as the only land connection between Yakutsk and the communities on the other side of the Lena. Mr Germogin is making the trip despite knowing his own vehicle is at least two tons overweight, which makes it even more likely to break the ice.
Arian Tastygin, a maintenance worker whose job it is to inspect vans that hit the roads on the Yakutsk side, is fatalistic about the risks drivers take every day.
“People are obviously trying to get through. Everything here depends on winter roads, ”he told the telegraph from his cabin on the bank of the Lena.
Arian Tastygim, a maintenance worker on the ice road outside of Yakutsk - Maria Turchenkova
The shortening of the ice road season shows how climate change is disrupting people's livelihoods in this part of the far north of Russia, which stands on constantly frozen ground.
The ice roads are usually in operation between November and April. That year, however, one of Yakutsk's main ice roads, which connects it to a train station that carries goods from China and the Far East of Russia, didn't open until early December, about three weeks later than usual.
"Winter roads come into operation later in the year because the ice formation takes longer and begins to melt in spring, which shortens the season," says Dr. Lyudmila Lebedeva, a scientist at the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, who constantly studies Siberia's perennial frozen soil.
"There used to be winter here when the ice on the Lena was two meters thick - we can no longer see that."
From Dr. Lebedeva and her team calculated impact models predict that the ice road season on the Lena could decrease by up to 50 days by the end of the century due to climate change. According to research by the Hype Eras project, which studies permafrost and resilience in the Russian Arctic and Subarctic, the ice here is already only two thirds as thick as it was 60 years ago.
Dr. Lyudmila Lebedeva and her team predict that the ice road season on the Lena could drop by up to 50 days by the end of the century due to climate change - Maria Turchenkova
Dr. Alexander Fedorov, the director of the Melnikov Institute, has a map of the surrounding state of Yakutia - a region almost the size of India - above his desk. It shows different climatic zones that are layered on top of each other and extend north to the Arctic coast.
Only during his lifetime did a temperature rise of between one and two degrees cause the warmer climates to migrate several hundred kilometers further north.
Granted, to the average winter visitor to Yakutsk, the idea of ​​global warming may seem a long way off. When The Telegraph was there in early December, the temperature was no higher than minus 41 ° C, and even several layers of thermal underwear felt like little protection. Nevertheless, the winters here became milder and later.
The official winter road was on the ice of the Lena - Maria Turchenkova
Nadezhda Novopriyezzhaya, the acting director of a museum and nature reserve on the banks of the Lena River, wearing traditional reindeer skin boots and a fur coat, recalls how restless the locals were over the unusually warm November of that year.
“Everyone would ask, what happened?” She said. "When does it get cold?"
Locals have reported inconsistent supplies of goods in local stores, while farmers have noted disruptions in their routines. They usually kill their animals with the arrival of winter and store the meat outside instead of buying expensive industrial freezers.
The 56-year-old farmer Maria Dobretsova had to postpone the usual culling time for her cows by 20 days this year before the mercury finally dropped below -20 ° C.
"It's not just about the extra time, it's an additional cost for us to feed them," she said.
Like many Yakut farmers, Maria Dobretsova kills her animals with the arrival of winter and stores the meat outside instead of buying expensive industrial freezers - Maria Turchenkova
Moving goods across the Lena would be much easier if Moscow, six time zones away, gave the green light to the unfortunate project of a bridge for Yakutsk.
The proposed £ 1 billion Lena crossing was entangled in nearly two decades of delay and has still not been officially approved.
While Russian government officials still routinely deny the human cause of climate change, Yakutians are glad that the Kremlin has least of all finally recognized that climate change is happening.
The city of Yakutsk is shrouded in fog, as temperatures drop well below minus 40 ° C - Maria Turchenkova
Russia adopted the Paris Agreement to Combat Climate Change last year and recently announced its target for greenhouse gas emissions. However, it has disappointed climate activists by setting its projected emissions cut to 1990, the year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was home to some of the world's worst industrial pollutants.
According to Vladimir Prokopyev, a regional legislator, a bridge over the Lena would be the only viable solution to address the risks to the ice roads caused by climate change. But the region, he says, simply does not have the funds to build it without Kremlin funding.
"We have high hopes for the bridge," he says. "If we don't make that decision now, the economy of this region and the whole country will lose billions of rubles."

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