Location: Yakutsk. A documentary by David Rosanis, from an idea by Bruno Nahon. Duration: 03:02
The unlikeliest habitations in the world
Yakutsk, Cherrapunji, Hammerfest, La Paz… these are the cities that top the charts.
They struggle doggedly against the toughest environmental conditions on our planet to provide their populations with an acceptable level of existence. These cities persist and continue flourishing in places where normally only traditional villages would be expected to survive. With a temperature of 50 degrees below zero, or the most horrendous monsoons in the world, or an altitude close to that of Mont Blanc, or a latitude where the sun disappears for more than three months… in these inhospitable locales, tens of thousands of people live, work, study, seek amusement, and sometimes fall sick because of their environment.
These cities, with the extreme adaptations they impose on their populations and the scientific and technical innovations necessary to maintain their infrastructures, are in effect open-sky laboratories on an urban scale. Armies of scientists study these people and their cultures, mining them for information on the settlement and development of human colonies in the most challenging environments imaginable. These cities are true guinea-pigs.
What the urban environments presented here all have in common is rapid demographic change, and at the same time a significant degradation of their geographic and climatic realities. Since their founding, their survival has always been an exercise in tightrope walking. But today the balance is breaking down. Most of these cities are caught between the demands of development and the inescapable realities of climate change.
The cities of Yakutsk, Cherrapunji, Hammerfest and La Paz are mobilizing all their reserves of courage, ingenuity and culture to prevent their extreme environments from winning the battle. They are experiencing either great societal success or great difficulties. But how are they managing really? And what can we learn from them about the urban animal?
Consists of four 43-minute episodes:
1. Yakutsk: Beneath the Sheaths of Ice
2. Cherrapunji: Abode of the Rain People
3. Hammerfest: Place of Eternal Night
4. La Paz: Capital in the Sky
An Episode One: Yakutsk
Contrary to the popular notion, the Earth’s coldest place is not the North Pole but a geographic zone that meteorologists have designated the “cold pole.” This zone is in eastern Siberia, in the region of Iakoutia. Its principal city is Yakutsk, which can lay claim to being the coldest city on the planet.
At the time of writing, the weather forecast for March 7 and 8 is, respectively, –48°C and –50°C. During the months of January and February 2007, the city experienced no less than 11 days below -50°C. In 1998, Yakutsk recorded the historic temperature of –67°C. In these almost extraterrestrial conditions, a light breeze of 20 Km/h will produce a wind chill factor of around –90°C.
Nevertheless, Iakoutsk is far more than just a village or scientific base in the Arctic (voir français) with a few souls struggling to survive. It is a city of 200,000 inhabitants. When the temperature drops to around –50 degrees and lower, the battle to prevent installations from instantly freezing up and to maintain acceptable standards of sanitation for a modern community becomes enormously complex and requires constant vigilance. But the biggest challenge relates to the nature of the soil on which Yakutsk is built: the city is founded entirely on permafrost, a layer up to 300 m thick in this region that remains permanently frozen, except for about 2 m each summer. The problem of construction and maintenance of buildings on this type of land is truly perplexing. Some buildings are constantly threatened with collapse and the phenomenon seems to be accelerating alarmingly these past few years.
Antonina Kytchkina has been working on “permafrost inspection” in Iakoutsk since 1971. She runs non-stop from problem to problem trying to stave off the worst threats. “In 1971, in Yakutsk, there were 100 buildings made of stone and we had 12, then 18 inspectors, responsible for surveillance of the permafrost,” she recalls. Today, we have 5,000 buildings to look after and there are only two of us. I’m like the great surgeon Pirogov (celebrated 19th-century Russian doctor), who has to do a triage on the battlefield: I determine which buildings are most urgently in need of attention if we want avoid a catastrophe.”
At the counter in the Impex bank, in the centre of Yakutsk, some cracks more than a centimetre wide have appeared these past few months. In the bank’s toilets, tiles have popped out due to the opposing stresses in the walls, and daylight can now be seen through the outside wall. Strips of paper that have been glued across the fissures for the past few weeks are already shredded, and the bank employees are afraid: “It’s not very reassuring working in this building,” says one white-collar worker. “It feels like it’s going to fall on our heads at any moment.” A little further away, an enormous block of five-story dwellings is starting to bend inwards and crack. All around, the wooden houses are crinkling.
In the face of this constant threat weighing on their city, the inhabitants echo worldwide anxieties about climate change: “With the warming of the climate, our frozen soil is starting to melt and our houses are dancing about,” they say. Maintenance costs are becoming untenable – a refrain that is often heard in local politics, thus justifying the inexorable deterioration of the infrastructure. In order to separate the true from the false, a research institute dedicated to the issue has been created in Yakutsk: the Permafrost Research Institute. Rudolf Zhang, director of the Institute, is absolutely convinced it is not the climate that is to blame but engineers who failed to adapt – indeed were negligent. As he says, “The reason our buildings are crumbling at Yakutsk is that they are badly constructed.”
Confident in the solidity of the permafrost, the director of the Institute implores others “not to blame the cracks in the buildings on the climate, as do the politicians who mess up everything.” In order to remain solid and secure on this icy terrain whose thin upper layer melts every summer, the buildings in Yakutsk that have endured since the 1960s were built on pilings. They rest on concrete pilings some six to eight metres deep, which are sunk deep into the permafrost and are designed to prevent the buildings from moving about in the summer. “The problem we observe today,” says Rudolf Zhang, “is that many buildings were put up quickly, without waiting for the cold to properly grip these concrete pilings deep down, or without leaving a sufficient cushion of air between the earth and the building to prevent warming of the soil. Or pipes can burst – a frequent occurrence in Yakutsk – and the steaming hot water from the system spills out everywhere, melting the ice.”
Local inspector Antonina Kytchkina has observed something that is alarming her: actual ice caverns under the foundations of the buildings.
To convince visitors of the solidity of the permafrost, Iakoutian specialists in extreme temperatures invite people to descend beneath the Institute, where an underground gallery has been excavated in the permafrost so that visitors can walk about inside the frozen earth. At the top of the stairs, it is just above 10°C and water is dripping. “Don’t assume that’s our permafrost melting,” says Mark Shats, the researcher in charge of our tour. “It’s just the rainwater seeping through.” Descending a few steps into the first gallery, some three metres underground, the cold already starts to bite. “For every three metres of depth, the temperature varies according to the time of year,” explains Mark Shats. “In winter, it can be -8 or -9°C. In summer, it goes up to 2 or 3°C.” Descend a few more steps and the second underground gallery, at 12 metres down, offers the striking spectacle of bunches of ice crystals on the walls. “Here the temperature is a constant -5°C all year round,” explains the guide. “It hasn’t changed since the gallery was dug.”
On the surface of the sandy walls petrified by the cold can be seen plant roots and twigs, similar to those you would find digging in any sandy soil. Except that these vegetal fragments are astonishingly light. “They are 10,000 years old,” explains Mark Shats. “The wood is light because it is completely dry. All moisture has been drained from it. If you bring this piece of pine up to the surface, it will immediately disintegrate. But here in the cold it remains perfectly preserved. A city can maintain itself quite well on ice,” he concludes. “To see a rise in the temperature of the permafrost, you would have to go much more deeply into the bowels of the earth,” say the Institute’s researchers. In Yakutsk, you have to go down 300 metres to reach a temperature of 0°C.”
“We don’t deny there is warming. Our average annual temperature in Yakutsk today is 2 degrees higher than thirty years ago. But under our city is a layer of permafrost 300 metres deep. It’s going to take a lot more than that to make it melt!” affirms Rudolf Zhang.
The building inspector, Antonina Kytchkina, is completing a tour of buildings that are riddled with cracks; she confirms seeing hardly any especially abnormal melting. “The upper layer of soil, which melts every summer, is about 2.5 metres thick. The situation has barely changed for 30 years. It’s humans who are responsible for the collapse of the houses in the Far North,” she concludes. “Not because we burn too much CO2, but because we are still not good enough builders. Urban life is possible here, even if many negative people would like to discourage us. It’s our city and we’re not going to let it sink into the ice for a lot of silly reasons!”