Town Where Frost Is King May Be Slowly Melting

A remote Siberian city is known for its Permafrost Institute and houses on stilts

'Well, here we are," says the teenage driver of our Russian-made Zhiguli automobile. "This is the only mammoth in town."

We pull up next to a plaster mammoth that looks as if it should be greeting visitors at a miniature golf course. But this is no ordinary giant beast. It marks the home of the world-famous Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, Russia, an institution devoted, as one might guess by the name, to the study of permafrost.

To people in warmer climes, the idea of a Permafrost Institute might seem strange. But in Yakutsk, permafrost is serious business. In this town of 230,000 perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle, all buildings stand on concrete stilts lest they melt the layer of permafrost underneath and collapse.

Tatiana Botulu, a researcher at the institute for 23 years, explains that 65 percent of the former Soviet Union lies on top of permafrost. The former Soviet Union has the most wonderful permafrost anywhere, says Ms. Botulu, scarcely able to conceal her pride. And Yakutsk, she says, has the best permafrost in the former Soviet Union - all of which contributes to making this city the permafrost capital of the world.

It was here, in the vast and sparsely populated territory around Yakutsk, that Dima the Baby Mammoth and other nearly perfectly preserved frozen mammoths have been found.

Indeed, Yakutsk is a city rich in permafrost history. In 1827 a merchant named Shergin discovered that no matter how deep he dug the well outside his house, he never hit water. Hearing the news, the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow ordered him to keep digging. After 10 years and some 350 feet, he was still coming up dry. A legion of experts was dispatched to Yakutsk. Eventually, one of them determined that the reason the well was dry was that the groundwater was permanently frozen.

More than a century later, Soviet authorities founded the Yakutsk Permafrost Institute as a means of assisting their campaign to bring Socialist civilization to the Russian north.

As Botulu tells it, her institute quickly became the world leader in permafrost research. "We designed the first hydroelectric dam to be built on permafrost, and the first oil pipeline as well," she says. But, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, she and her colleagues at the institute have experienced the indignity of seeing their pipeline idea realized in Alaska, not Russia.

Russia's deep financial crisis has had a telling effect on the city of Yakutsk too. Not long ago the riverboat pilot training center building here collapsed when the stilts supporting it gave way because of melted permafrost. Other buildings have suffered the same problem, prompting the mayor to declare the city a natural disaster area.

"The problem here is that there are man-made rivers of warm water running underneath the buildings," Botulu says. Poorly maintained Russian plumbing is slowly doing in the eternal frosts that keep Yakutsk from disappearing into a muddy hole.

In such circumstances, it would seem that permafrost research is more urgently needed than ever here. But even die-hard enthusiasts like Botulu are hard pressed to keep up with their Western counterparts, who, with the help of expensive modern technology, have eaten away Yakutsk's lead in permafrost research.

Botulu admits that the Russians have fallen behind. But she and her comrades will not give up easily.

"I think we'll show [the world scientific community] that we are still capable of a thing or two," Botulu says.

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