How do the people of Yakutsk survive in extreme cold?

January 2, 2009

Accepted a lot of questions from Marie, of windy Chicago. Three dozens, maybe. All of them about Yakutsk and its dwellers’ way of life in the winter. I had two attempts to answer and, sorry, made Marie waiting for the reply a few days, because I was sick and busy later.

Below her questions and my answers.

1. Let’s start with illness, since you just had a sore throat. Does being in the extreme cold cause illness, especially respiratory illness? Does being indoors a lot spread illness? For example, are there outbreaks of flu when everybody gets sick?

Right, in winter we must be very careful, wear warm clothes on every occasion, even if we go outside just for 5-10 minutes. Sometimes we ignore precausions saying ‘Nothing will happen to us, if to spend just a few minutes outside without hat or scarf, or smoke just one cigarette,’ and as result we get all kinds of respiratory illness. Flu outbreaks usually appear with warm spell. When temperature rises from -40C to -20C. We may catch flu in public transports, stores, homes, work places. When flu outbreak is registered in the city, kids may have school off and recommended to not visit public places and stay home.

2. What are indoor temperatures like when it is -50 degrees or so outside? Do people keep their homes on the cool side or very warm? What is the source of heat for homes?

Indoor temperatures depend on building’s heating system. When it works well, it might be very hot inside. If the system wasn’t prepared good enough for heating season, it might be chilly. By the way, in fall we must insulate windows, i.e. put additional warm layers on windows bars, so cold couldn’t get inside through small fissures. We like when it is warm inside, actually. We get heat from city’s centralized heating system, some from boiler-houses.

3. How long does it take to get dressed to go outside in the extreme cold? What do people wear to protect themselves? Lots of layers? Furs? Is there a difference in how young people dress compared with older people (one of your flickr photos suggests this might be the case)?

I try not to hurry :) So getting dressed may take 8-10 minutes. I wear a shirt, thin sweater, Canada Goose Heli-Arctic Parka (I paid for it approx. 1000 USD, so I have to wear it this winter at least :) ), one thick wool pants, ordinary trousers, fur reindeer skin boots, leather hat with warm wool layer inside, warm leather gloves. Ladies prefer huge fur coats, fur hats, high reindeer skin boots. Young people like stylish parkas, actually they worry more about appearance than keeping themselves in warm.

4. How much time do people spend outdoors vs. indoors in winter? How much sunlight do you get? What is the length of daylight right now? Do you celebrate the winter solstice when the days start getting longer again?

In winter we spend most time inside. We try spend less time outside, only when we are on the way to work, home, shops, etc. Kids stay inside all the day round, or just a few seconds outside, enough for reaching a car and getting inside. No, we don’t celebrate the winter solstice. We have Winter Farewell Holiday on the last Sunday in March. That’s the Russian tradition. The funny thing is that the last Sunday of March is not the end of the Yakutian winter.

5. When does the spring thaw usually begin? What is it like? How long does it take to thaw and end flooding, etc.?

The spring thaw starts in the midth of April. Intensive melting takes place in the very end of April or the beginning of May. Spring flooding happens from the end of May till the midth of June. This is in the Central Yakutia. Flooding is usually devastating. High waters may wash away houses or even whole villages located on river banks. That’s why EMERCOM (the Russian emergency service) is always on alert in spring, and news agencies come with breaking news from Yakutia saying like “… families left without houses”. Here is the link to such news http://yakutiatoday.com/news/society_00041.shtml

6. Do many people have pets, like dogs? If so, how do they fare in winter?

Every fourth family in apartments buildings and every private house owner have dogs. Mainly for security reasons, in order to protect properties from thieves. Certainly, dogs need to go outside for pee, no other options for them :) , other pets may do it inside – in special boxes.

7. Does the city ever shut down because of extreme cold? Does transportation ever come to a halt?

No. Transportation never stops. Some private car owners, however, prefer to keep their vehicles in warm garages for harsh cold days. Public transportation works. Taxi as well, but cab drivers like to raise rates for the period of extreme cold.

8. How do people move around in the city in the winter? Are there problems with mobility?

Mainly by public buses, cabs or work (non-private) cars. Private cars are used rarely in the winter. People care much about their properties and keep them for warm days. No problems with mobility, if enough cash is available. And the city is not so big. One may cross Yakutsk from one end to another just for 40 minutes by a car.

9. What about people who have disabilities, and are paralyzed? What is their life like in Yatutsk? How do they manage in winter?

They stay at homes, unfortunately, all the day round and cared by relatives. If they need to go outside, they call special taxi or ER or something like that. If able, they do some simple homeworks.

10. Do most people who live in Yakutsk live their all their lives? Did you grow up there? Do people choose to move there? Do you plan to stay there for your whole life? Is there anywhere else you would like to live?

Born-in-Yakutsk people prefer to stay in the city. However, if their parents’ origin is of other Russian regions, they may move back to parents’ birth locations. Another category who may consider move to another city is the people who feel their ability to make bright career in big cities like Moscow or St Petersburg.

In my case, I prefer to live in other places only for short-term work experience :) Locals like me say “If I want to see the world, it is enough to buy fly tickets and go on vocation.”

11. Does Yakutsk have a “personality?” How would you describe people of Yakutsk? Their outlook on life?

No, this is not Paris. However, as an American graduate student said recently, Yakutsk is like the island of civilization in Siberian wildness. The city doesn’t have special outstanding personality look, it is more industrial-like town, but people’s thinking and way of life are more mordern and progressive.

12. What is the relative humidity like in winter? In summer?

Have no idea, sorry. It may be checked on any weather website. But I can say for sure ‘It is very dry and strong wind free place’. If we had Chicago’s winds or Florida’s humidity, no one would survive here in extreme cold.

In summer it is hot enough. +30C/+86F and +36C/+96F are normal temperatures, especially in July and the early August.

13. Do you get a lot of snow? Thunderstorms in summer?

In the Central Yakutia we don’t have much snow. But in the south and north they’ve got a lot and snowstorms happens very often, especially when warm spell happens. So, drivers, be careful.

In the summer thunderstorms happen. Rains may continue a week long. But sunny days prevail.

14. What are summers like? Do people spend a lot of time outdoors? Do they leave the city very often.

Real summer goes from the midth of June till the midth of August. Hot dry weather with rare rains. A lot of masquitos in forest and even in the city. People try to arrange BBQ every weekend and spend much free time on river banks :) They want to take utmost from summer. Summer here is like holidays, winter like a work week.

15. What is the flooding like in the spring? Is it really true they are building a bridge across the Lena? Do you think it will work?

Flooding is devastating. A few years ago even the town of Lensk was totally covered by waters and demolished. Yes, a bridge across the Lena river is promised to be constructed by 2013 at least. Have some doubts about the safty of the bridge. The Lena river has strong flow and very unpredictable. But engineers say “Everything will be OK”. Let’s see.

16. How long is the growing season on average? (Average date of first and last frost?)

Winter = the midth of October — the end of April.
Spring = May
Summer = the midth of June — the midth of August
Fall = the midth August – September – and maybe a few days in October



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