Climate Change in Yakutia
“Nature Has Ceased to Trust Us”

Reindeer on a farm in the Aldansky District, Yakutia.
The search for food becomes more difficult: reindeer on a farm in the Aldansky District, Yakutia. | Photo (detail): picture alliance © Artyom Geodakyan/TASS/dpa

The lakes freeze over later, less fish is caught and ice roads melt:  In Yakutia, climate change has long stopped being a theoretical concept. Our author Vyacheslav Shadrin on the dwindling relationship between humans and nature.

By Vyacheslav Shadrin

Today, many people talk about climate change. Most of them focus on rising temperatures. With the temperature growing by 5.8 degrees centigrade during the last 20 years (according to the official statistics), the Kolyma delta region records the biggest temperature changes worldwide. Despite that, something else troubles the Indigenous peoples of the region more. 

The thing that has the most significant impact on the traditional lifestyle of the Indigenous people here is the weather. The weather defines where reindeer will go to pasture, where to set up a camp between migrations, when and where animals, birds, and fish will migrate, and how they will behave. For centuries, the Indigenous peoples of the North have been accumulating traditional knowledge that has helped them survive in an extreme environment. However, the rapid climate change of recent years, aggravated by other transformations, presents the Indigenous peoples with severe challenges. They cannot apprehend the full scope of what is going on and lack the internal resources needed to adapt. 

In the north, people still rely on traditional means of observing and forecasting the weather for the day, season, or longer. For hundreds of years, they observed the stars, the Moon, the Sun, and the sky and used their knowledge about the snow and the wind. The behaviour of animals, the state of plants, and our own bodies can speak volumes to those who understand their “language.” Spiritual practices, including clairvoyance, recounting dreams, and shamanic divination played a special role in the process. Traditional knowledge about the weather is being transformed, and lately, it has been inconsistent with reality. The elders say that it has become impossible to forecast the weather, especially over long periods. One of them, I quote, said: “Nature has ceased to trust us.” The sustainability or reindeer husbandry and successful hunting and fishing depend on weather forecasting. Today, this has become extremely challenging. 

Changes in Lakes and Rivers Are Most Noticeable 

The increase in the number of climatic and natural abnormalities (growing precipitation and floods, droughts and wildfires, hurricanes and sudden storms) and drastic changes in the weather (warming and rains in winter, snowfalls and blizzards in summer, etc.) are a major concern. They affect traditional industries, such as reindeer husbandry, hunting, and fishing. For example, there were seven very snowy summers in the Kolyma Basin between 2010 and 2019, which made it much harder to choose pastures.  However, the growth of threats to the Indigenous peoples’ lives remains the primary challenge for stability in the region. In our conceptualization, nature is rational, and there is an explanation for everything. Our elders say: “Nature must be taking revenge on us (all people). We are treating it too harshly.” 

Practically everyone has noticed that the environment and the landscape have been changing. This is how one reindeer herder describes what has been going on: “We have observed the weather and noticed changes. Lakes are overflowing their banks. Small rivers are becoming bigger. I find unfamiliar plants in the pastures. A lot of polar willows has started to appear in the tundra. We use it for fires. When I was a child, we had to spend a long time searching for it. Today, there is plenty of it. New fish species have entered the rivers. Before, we used to move slowly northwards to reach the sea when we migrated with the reindeer. Now, we get there very fast because of the mosquitos that plague our reindeer. We have been noticing new currents and very little ice in the sea. The weather has been changing all the time, which makes it difficult to provide the reindeer with enough food and lead them to lakes and other sources of water.” The area of reindeer pastures in Lower Kolyma tundra has already decreased by 30% due to the spread of bush species to territories typically overgrown by reindeer moss.  

The changes in lakes and rivers are the most noticeable. The period of ice drifts and, more importantly, the freezing time has shifted significantly. There have been more floods in the region, and river flow has increased, washing away riverbanks. The phenomenon is triggered not only by faster flows but also—and to a greater degree—by the melting of the permafrost, which puts us in severe danger because almost all our villages are located on the banks of rivers or lakes.  

In recent years, locals have noticed yet another hazard. Anthrax burial sites and ancient burials of people who died of plague and smallpox are likely to get washed away. This hypothetical threat has become real. Apart from this, scientists say that microorganisms that froze 20,000 to 30,000 years ago may awake (it has happened in laboratories). This is a potential threat to the entire humanity because these microorganisms can spread worldwide with migrant birds and spawn various mutations. 

According to the elders from the Lower Kolyma region, the ground is “sagging” because it has become wetter. This causes lakes to disappear. They leak away to rivers through thawed areas in the permafrost. As a result, many people have lost their fishing spots. This was also brought about by the melting of the permafrost.  

Winter “Lifelines“ Threatened 

Fisherpeople have been increasingly complaining that the fish are gone. They cast their nets in the same places at the same time but catch no fish. Scientists explain that fish left the shallows for deeper areas because the water is too warm. The time of fish migrations has also changed. As I was writing this article, I got a call from my native village, Nelemnoye, located on the bank of the Kolyma. People were wondering why the river had not frozen yet. The later it freezes, the less fish will be stocked up because we usually do ice fishing and prepare stroganina—the most common food here—at that time. By the middle of November, we will have run out of fish, so people will have to put their lives at risk and go out on thin ice to catch them. This is yet another challenge related to climate change. 

Permafrost melting inflicts great damage on the existing infrastructure. Helipads break down, houses deteriorate due to the extreme defrosting of their piled footings, and the wear and tear of utilities and power lines increase rapidly. The recent catastrophe when 20 tonnes of diesel spilt in the Taymyr Peninsula showed how severe this threat can be in the Arctic.   

Locals are worried about roads deteriorating in the region. Most roads in the north are seasonal, the only reliable roads are snow trails in winter. Today, on the one hand, the ground “staggers” because of the permafrost melting. On the other hand, snow trails open a month or two later and close a month earlier. This happens because the ice on the rivers and lakes remains too thin in fall, and the snow starts melting too early in spring. As a result, snow trails work only two to three months instead of the usual five to six months. This radically affects the lives of the locals because everything – coal for heating stations, diesel for power stations, petroleum, oil and lubricants for vehicles, and, most importantly, food—is brought in by these winter “lifelines.”  

People are afraid of industries coming to claim their land. They believe that the melting of the permafrost makes mineral resources more accessible, which leads to more and more lands being withdrawn from traditional use. This happens both directly and indirectly. Infrastructure built for industrial projects—roads, power lines—and the noise associated with the construction has a major impact on the environment. The situation is aggravated by the deterioration of the environment itself. This is, as representatives of Indigenous peoples believe, the most significant challenge presented by climate change. One of the northern elders said: “We have been living here for thousands of years. Many things change, but our ancestors always found a way out of the situation. But we cannot survive if we do not have our land.” 

Therefore, climate change is not a theoretical debate for our people but a very real threat to our existence right now.