Human Journey

Russia’s River Villages: An Icy Grave

Jon Waterhouse and Mary Marshall take the Network of Indigenous Knowledge (NIK) and its citizen-science effort to monitor water health deep into Russia. Along the way, amid sanctions and tension between the U.S. and Russia, they find a more peaceful journey and more friends than they ever imagined.

We’ve worked with Valentine and the Permafrost Institute for several years now. So, while we were in Yakutsk we made the time to visit the Institute, an old building which represents an interesting combination of high and low tech. Large windows filled with beautiful green plants throughout the offices gave no hint of the icy world awaiting us just under the old wooden floors.

We donned the expedition parkas supplied by our hosts at the top of a closed stairway and began our decent upon increasingly icy steps to visit the research laboratories below. Within seconds we went from the toasty main floor offices to an ice cave underground where mammoth bones and various specimens are housed on several levels. We joked that the overall feel in this deep-frozen facility was similar to the icy interior set of the 50’s sci-fi hit, The Thing From Another World… surreal. 

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At the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Mary interviewed Valentine and he shared this interesting fact: The Institute is currently considering the implications of intentionally melting permafrost on building sites in cold climates. This would assure stable, safer, and more durable construction—a kind of shocking but logical concept. Jody asked about the methane that might be leaking out of permafrost around the world into the atmosphere, which we learned is not present in all permafrost (thankfully, if it causes the greenhouse effect scientists predict). 

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An icy dungeon door. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Next: Strangers in Strange Zhigansk

Previous: Yakutsk Hospitality

Read More by Jon Waterhouse

Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river."Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.

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