Eduard Romanov points to a spot on a block of flats where a major supporting beam has sagged and begun to crack, destabilising the nine storeys of apartments above.
In Russia’s Siberian city of Yakutsk, one of the coldest on Earth, climate change is causing dangerous melting of the frozen ground, or permafrost, on which the buildings stand.
“Since the year before last, the building has started to list and has tilted about 40 centimetres (16 inches),” says Romanov, a construction worker and environmental activist. “There is a danger that it will tilt even more,” he says, as labourers perform emergency welding on the structure, the temperature around minus 35 degrees Celsius (minus 31 Fahrenheit).
Average temperatures in Yakutsk have risen by 2.5 degrees Celsius over the past decade, say scientists at the Melnikov Permafrost Institute located here, the world’s only such research centre. Most Soviet-era apartment blocks in Yakutsk are made of concrete panels and stand on stilts to ventilate the building’s underside and prevent it heating the permafrost, a layer of soil cemented together with water that is only stable as long as it stays frozen.
Rising summer temperatures can destroy the solid permafrost. As the ice melts, the clay or sand simply sinks together with whatever is on top of it — a road, a building, a lake or a layer of fertile “black earth” for agriculture. Permafrost covers almost the whole of Yakutia — a northeast Siberian region bordering the Arctic Ocean, an area five times the size of France.
In total, around 65 percent of Russian territory is covered by permafrost. With a population of about 300,000 Yakutsk is the world’s largest city built on permafrost, and it could be especially in danger from the melting that Romanov and many residents fear.
Older buildings were not constructed with a warming climate in mind. In the 1960s, the norm was to drive stilts six metres (20 feet) deep into the solid permafrost, which is no longer sufficient today as the surface warms, Romanov says.
Some buildings in Yakutsk have already had to be demolished while others are full of cracks.
“All of Yakutsk is in danger. The owners face losing their property, and nobody is ready for this,” Romanov says.
“These problems will multiply in the future, so we need to start addressing this today.”