At forty below, Siberian 'heat wave' frosts eyebrows

The east Siberian city of Yakutsk has a minor heat wave on its hands: It's only about 40 degrees below zero. ''Warm!'' proclaims one local woman, with (literally) frosted red hair, of the shivery point where the Celsius and Farenheit temperature scales nearly converge.

Often in January or February, daytime temperatures dive below minus 50 Celsius - about minus 58 degrees Farenheit.

Even at 40 below, the cold is actually visible. The door of an arriving aircraft exhales a stream of vapor, like some giant metal mouth yawning into the dry chill air, as passengers deplane. Beards, eyebrows, nose hairs, start frosting up as the arrivals walk the short distance to the airport terminal. Plastic bags begin to turn brittle as glass.

Yakutsk residents are used to cold - and proud of it - a little like Beirutis who, during Lebanon's civil war, would tell outsiders that the nighttime rumble of shellfire wasn't really that bad once you got used to it.

Beirutis had their own special ways of outsmarting fear. Yakutsk has its ways of beating the shivers. Taxi drivers, for instance, are apt to leave their engines running all day long. Two sets of keys are often carried, one for locking the car's doors during work breaks, the other to keep the motor chugging its steamy breath into the cold.

Many a motorist takes the further precaution of affixing, with putty, a second windshield atop his vehicle's original one. This acts as a defroster. On side and back windows, small glass rectangles are attached, peepholes through the frost. Homes here are built with three parallel sets of windows, like Maginot lines against winter.

In recent years, all new buildings have been mounted on concrete stilts. This is because Yakutsk, like much of east Siberia, lies on a bed of permafrost. Dwellings set directly on the ground melt a small layer of this bed and year by year sink a little bit. Some older wooden houses - with ground floors seemingly intent on being basements - still stand as monuments to the problem.

The New Englander's weakness for flashy goosedown parkas has passed Yakutsk by. Reindeer coats - for that matter, reindeer boots and even reindeer gloves - are a more usual local answer to the cold.

While newer arrivals to Yakutsk take care to garb themselves in wide scarves, thick socks, double gloves, and the like, veterans scoff at such precautions. Often a true Yakutskian will leave his face utterly uncovered, his only concession to the weather a periodic rubbing of the nose to ward off frostbite. He will not don an extra pair of gloves. Young children, away from their parents , are sometimes similarly defiant.

One evening when the temperature had skyrocketed to a mere minus 38 Celsius - minus 36 Farenheit - a group of scarf-less primary schoolers was playing what might be called ''king of the permafrost'' on a small mound of snow near a bus stop.

Soviet experts - and local residents - say the human body seems gradually to find ways of living with the cold here. The local high-fat diet is said to help.

Still, even veteran Yakutskians aren't utterly immune to the elements. The city authorities halt all outdoor work when the thermometer dips to minus 51 Celsius, something local residents say is likely to occur on about half of all January and February days. Primary school classes are also cancelled at this point, though a few determined kids are said to dabble at hockey.

Every once in a while, one Yakutskian will turn to another and, unaware of an eavesdropping foreigner nearby, will complain of the cold.

''What's the temperature?'' I asked one middle-aged Yakutsk pedestrian shortly before returning to the steamy, minus-seven-degree-Celsius weather of faraway Moscow.

''Minus 30,'' she said.

''That's warm!'' was my prompt reply, a borrowed local favorite.

''No,'' the puzzled woman answered, before she could catch herself. ''It's cold!''

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