Winter in the World’s Coldest City

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A fish vendor drinking berry juice at the local market in Yakutsk. Life is pretty good!

As Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer in the United States, what better time than to look back on a winter spent in the world’s coldest city? Yakutsk, the capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic, may or may not be Arctic. I asked a few residents and its designation seemed to be up for debate. The cold, however, is undeniable. The mercury drops to -60° in winter, but while I was there in February, the unusually warm temperatures of -35° and sometimes even -25° made people announce that spring was already here. But no one was taking off their fur hat.

I was told that Yakutsk is so cold because the mountains surrounding the city trap all the frigid air. Situated in the middle of Russia’s largest republic smack dab in the center of the Russian Far East, Yakutsk is one of the world’s most remote cities and has no permanent connection to the outside world. There’s a thoroughly modern airport with international flights to places like China and South Korea, but no bridge to the Russian railroad and highway systems that terminate on the other side of the massive Lena River. Effectively, Yakutsk is a city of 300,000 people that, despite being in the middle of nowhere by most standards still appears vibrantly cosmopolitan in many ways. Yakutsk feels like it’s straddling two continents, Asia and Europe. Some people have narrow green eyes and red hair, while others look more typically Asian. Yet nearly everyone speaks Russian, and many are also practicing Orthodox Christians. More than half of Yakutsk’s cars are imported from Japan and thus have their steering wheel on the right side, but the cars drive on the right side. Buses, however, are always made in Russia and have their steering wheels on the left side – “for safety,” as one person told me.

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A Yakut woman (Yakutka) demonstrating a traditional ceremony at a national restaurant outside Yakutsk.

Yakutsk also feels like a city that is straddling time, for the its built environment fuses its traditional heritage, Soviet past, and Asian-oriented future. Walking north along the main boulevard, there’s a green wooden building sinking into the permafrost with an old poster advertising an emergency number in Soviet times on its side. A few meters away stands a billboard for medical tourism in South Korea. Farther up the boulevard sits a huge concrete monument, likely built in Soviet times, featuring the horse-hitching posts emblematic of the region. North of that lies the Chinese market. The vendors, most of whom come from the northeast Chinese city of Harbin, used to sell their wares outdoors until Chinese money funded the construction of a permanent building. They may not have been as hardy as the locals, who still continue to sell their frozen fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables out of doors in winter. At the indoor Chinese market, all sorts of goods made in China are for sale including medicinal products, knock-off traditional Yakut boots (onti), and souvenirs like teacups and plates decorated with Yakut horses.

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A billboard for a Korean medical center next to wooden buildings sinking into the permafrost. Dial “01” for a Soviet emergency.

So what is day to day life like in winter the world’s coldest city?

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Waiting for the bus in platform heels. Who cares if the sidewalks are icy? A low, transparent fog is common in Yakutsk on winter mornings.

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Waiting for the bus into the city at an old Soviet bus stop on the outskirts of Yakutsk.

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Walking around the city is faster in winter because you can take shortcuts across all of the frozen rivers. Think of them as pedestrian ice roads.

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An orthodox church and a whale skeleton (despite Yakutsk being extremely landlocked). Welcome to Russia’s North!

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There is a lot of construction in Yakutsk, a city whose population has grown in recent years even as many other cities in eastern Russian have shrunk.

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Kids playing on top of a giant snow pile on the sidewalk.

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Winter cold doesn’t prevent street food or night life, because you can get shawarma 24 hours a day at this walk-up stall on the main street, Prospekt Lenin.

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Or you might fancy Korean food at this restaurant at the Chinese market. The Korean mixed rice dish, bibimbap, is very popular in Yakutsk and is made more familiar by being called “Корейский плов” (Korean plov, after the Russian/Uzbek rish dish).

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A Korean sauna next to the Chinese market.

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A building financed and designed by a Chinese company in central Yakutsk.

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You can also buy milk in frozen disks. No plastic jugs necessary. One disk was equivalent to about one dollar. Take home a fish taller than you for dinner while you’re at it.

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More fish than people are standing in this photo.

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You can also buy fish lying down on top of a Japanese SUV if you are so “inclined.”

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Although this man was not taking up the poster’s suggestion of eating ice cream, I saw a surprisingly large number of children walking around Yakutsk eating ice cream. One person said it was “because the weather was getting warmer.” On a related note, Finns and Icelanders also consume huge amounts of ice cream, so perhaps there’s a correlation between cold temperatures and cold food consumption.

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Lenin still watches over the main plaza with outstretched arms, while children romp down an ice slide erected for five months out of the year across the street.

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A big open area where cows used to graze that is now surrounded by tall apartment buildings.

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Traditional, low-slung wooden buildings in a neighborhood adjoining the more modern, Soviet part of Yakutsk.

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Dormitories at the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk decorated with murals saying “Victory! 70 Years,” commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.

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Heating pipes are pretty much everywhere. They can’t be buried underground because they’d melt the permafrost.

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Winter sunrise in Yakutsk with the temperature hovering just over -40. The cold is so extreme that it makes the steam plumes from all of the heating facilities turn horizontal in the sky.

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One way to keep warm at home: Have a pet chow-chow.

At White House, U.S. and Nordic leaders talk shop on the Arctic

Last Friday, over a state dinner of cured salmon, salt-cured ahi tuna, and venison tartar with truffle vinaigrette, President Barack Obama hosted leaders from the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen (Denmark), President Sauli Niinisto (Finland), Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson (Iceland), Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Norway), and Prime Minister Stefan Lofven (Sweden) all gathered around to enjoy a meal cooked by Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson.

Earlier in the day, Obama and the Nordic leaders discussed issues pertaining to security and defense, migration and refugees, climate, energy and the Arctic, and economic growth and global development. They released a fact sheet and a lengthy joint statement summarizing their views. The joint statement did not express anything particularly novel about the Arctic, instead making vague gestures towards the importance of ecosystem-based and precautionary approaches, scientifically-based conservation, and the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.

The statement also acknowledged the Manichean nature of the Arctic as a region of both vulnerability and opportunity. On the one hand, climate change is threatening indigenous ways of life, but on the other hand, the region is rich in industrial opportunities like transport and energy, as the excerpt below notes:

“The Arctic is rapidly changing and attracting global attention. It is a globally unique region that provides livelihoods for its inhabitants, but is also one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change. Rich with opportunities for transport, tourism, energy, and innovation, the Arctic is characterized by close cooperation on a broad range of issues between the United States and the Nordic Countries, together with our Arctic partners Canada and Russia.”

The joint statement, however, did not explain that climate change is makes possible these opportunities, nor did it detail how their pursuit could actually exacerbate Arctic warming and melting. The notion of this so-called “Arctic paradox” has gained currency in Arctic conference circles, but it hasn’t yet made the leap to the pages of White House joint statements. And while outlets like the Washington Post and EcoWatch claim that now, following the summit, “Economic activity in the Arctic must pass climate test,” it just isn’t clear from the blanket language of the statement how this is going to be achieved – especially given the irony of Norway’s Goliat oil field in the Barents Sea, the northernmost in the world, opening almost exactly one month prior to the signing of the U.S.-Nordic joint statement. 

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Eni’s Sevan 1000 floating unit being prepared for drilling in the world’s northernmost oil field, offshore Norway. Photo: Eni.

Maritime Executive reports that at the Goliat oil field, “for the first time in Norway, the local fishing fleet is a permanent part of the oil spill preparedness organization.” One can imagine a watery future in which all of the fishermen who are unable to fish in an ice-free Central Arctic Ocean due to a preemptive measure signed last year are instead employed in the service of oil rigs anchored in place where icebergs once floated. Meanwhile, the Arctic states will continue issuing statements about how Arctic economic activity must be sustainable.

The 2016 U.S.-Nordic joint statement can also be compared to the one released by the same six countries in 2013. The same boilerplate is again issued about the Arctic environment, sustainable development, and indigenous peoples, though with an added focus on clean energy and climate finance. But notably, Russia is not once mentioned. The 2013 statement was released in September, a few months before protests kicked off in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.


Some things change (Russia), some things stay the same (the Arctic).

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The U.S.-Nordic joint statement follows on the U.S.-Canada joint statement released in March in concert with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s state visit. Compared to the bilateral U.S.-Canada joint statement, the U.S-Nordic joint statement is more concerned with international cooperation in the Arctic. This makes sense given the more multilateral nature of the U.S.-Nordic meeting.

In contrast, the U.S.-Canada joint statement was much more detailed than the Nordic one, and it outlined four objectives for future Arctic leadership across global, regional, and notably local scales:

  • Conserving Arctic biodiversity through science-based decision making
  • Incorporating Indigenous science and traditional knowledge into decision-making
  • Building a sustainable Arctic economy
  • Supporting strong Arctic communities

Under the “strong Arctic communities objective,” an unusual amount of attention is paid to issues that often go ignored in international meetings about the Arctic such as the lack of housing for indigenous peoples and indigenous mental health. The U.S.-Canada joint statement proclaims:

“With partners, we will develop and share a plan and timeline for deploying innovative renewable energy and efficiency alternatives to diesel and advance community climate change adaptation. We will do this through closer coordination among Indigenous, state, provincial, and territorial governments and the development of innovative options for housing and infrastructure. We also commit to greater action to address the serious challenges of mental wellness, education, Indigenous language, and skill development, particularly among Indigenous youth.”

By the numbers

How do the three statements – the Joint Statement by the Kingdom of Denmark, Republic of Finland, Republic of Iceland, Kingdom of Norway, Kingdom of Sweden, and the U.S. in 2013, the U.S.-Nordic Leaders’ Summit Joint Statement in 2016, and the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership compare side by side?

I quickly generated a script in Python to run a rough textual analysis of the three statements, looking specifically at the sections within each one that focus on the Arctic. This script then found the most common words used in each statement. The table is color-coded with green cells referring to environmental issues, orange to development, purple to indigenous peoples, and blue to knowledge and science.

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Whereas the Canadian statement pays the most attention to Indigenous peoples (with a capital “i”) and development issues, the statements with the Nordic countries over the years focus more on energy, climate, and sustainability. These discursive contrasts correspond with the difference between the Nordic countries’ priorities as chairs of the Arctic Council – generally climate change and the environment – and those of the Canadian chairmanship, which promoted “Development for the People of the North.”

Russia: a state of exception?

The U.S. has now released joint statements that touch upon the Arctic with all but one Arctic state: Russia. President Vladimir Putin also remains the Arctic’s only leader to not be feted by a state dinner under the Obama administration, a fact which will probably not change before he leaves office. The U.S.-Nordic summit state dinner – the twelfth of the Obama administration – was preceded in March by a state dinner in honor of the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (where guests feasted on Yukon potatoes and maple pecan cake).

Although the Arctic remains a relative bright spot in cooperation between Russia and the West, the U.S. and Nordic leaders took the opportunity to call out Russia in the joint statement:

“The United States and the Nordic countries share a firm conviction that there can be no compromises over the international security order and its fundamental principles.  Russia’s illegal occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, which we do not accept, its aggression in Donbas, and its attempts to destabilize Ukraine are inconsistent with international law and violate the established European security order.”


The statement additionally chastised Russia’s behavior in the Baltic Sea:

The United States and the Nordic countries are concerned by Russia’s growing military presence in the Baltic Sea region, its nuclear posturing, its undeclared exercises, and the provocative actions taken by Russian aircraft and naval vessels.  We call on Russia to ensure that its military maneuvers and exercises are in full compliance with its international obligations and commitments to security and stability.

The Washington Post also criticized Russia, arguing, “The communique the group will issue comes a month and a half after the United States and Canada agreed to impose a similar litmus test on future Arctic activities, meaning that Russia now stands as the sole nation that has not agreed to integrate these standards as a matter of routine policy.”

While Russia may not have integrated these supposed standards as policy, at the end of the day, Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway, and Iceland all have pursued offshore oil to some degree – and to sometimes horrendous standards, as the disaster of Shell’s Kulluk oil rig in offshore Alaska revealed. At least with Russia, we can say that the country puts its money where its mouth is. For that reason and many others, don’t expect borscht and caviar on the menu at the White House any time soon.

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Russia’s Prirazlomnaya oil field in the Pechora Sea.

 

Eimskip in Maine: a saga for the 21st-century Arctic

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Last week, I wrote about my visit to the state of Maine, an up-and-coming actor in Arctic affairs. One of the primary drivers of Maine’s recent northern forays is Eimskip, Iceland’s oldest shipping company. In 2013, it moved its North American operations from Norfolk, Virginia to Portland, Maine’s biggest city. Larus Isfeld, Managing Director of Eimskip USA, observed to me over the phone, “Eimskip triggered Maine’s interest in the Arctic.”

While Eimskip is relatively new to Maine, the company has been operating in North America for over 100 years, first in New York and most recently in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk served as Eimskip’s North American port of call because the company had a contract moving cargo from the enormous naval station there to the U.S. naval air station in Keflavik, Iceland.

Once the Americans pulled out of Iceland in 2006, Eimskip revisited its business plan. The shipping line decided to move to Maine for a number of reasons. Shorter transit times and the large market for North Atlantic seafood in New England meant that Portland made more sense than Norfolk. In other words, U.S. military shifts, geography, and seafood lovers conspired to bring Eimskip to Maine.

Thanks in large part to Eimskip’s operations, Maine is now looking northeast to a market in Europe that it hadn’t really noticed before. Officials in Maine have also realized the cultural similarities between their state and Scandinavia, all of which have longstanding ties to the North Atlantic’s stormy waters. Maine is also now trying to expand upon business opportunities in the Nordic countries, such as with the Maine International Trade Center’s upcoming Scandinavian Trade Mission to Norway and Sweden. 

Portland-based photographer Justin Levesque captured the emerging cultural and economic linkages between Iceland and Maine during his artist’s residency aboard one of Eimskip’s vessels trawling the Green Line between Reykjavik and Portland. His resulting Icelandx207 project will be displayed at the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting in Portland later this fall. 

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Photos from Justin Levesque’s Icelandx207 project, featured with permission by the artist. Explore his work at icelandx207.com.

All abuzz in Portland

I had the chance to visit Eimskip’s port facilities just outside the center of town. To get there, I walked down Commercial Street. Until just a couple of decades ago, this stretch was fairly run-down; now, it boasts a gluten-free bakery, spice shop, and a store selling the latest in hip denim. South of this drag, the bottom end of Commercial Street retains more of a taste of classic Portland: shops selling freshly caught seafood and lobster and Becky’s, a white clapboard diner dishing out lobster rolls, corned beef hash, and blueberry pancakes.

After ten minutes of walking backwards in time along the waterfront, I arrived at the International Marine Terminal, the hub of Maine’s transport connection to the Arctic. An employee buzzed me inside the terminal’s small building within the Port of Portland, which moves the largest amount of tonnage in all of New England.

Here, Eimskip has a small office with four employees; three additional people work in their warehouse. The timing for my tour of the facilities was fortuitous: just a couple of hours earlier, one of Eimskip’s ships, Bruarfoss, had just sailed in from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three of Eimskip’s vessels visit Maine every five weeks, and it takes five to six days to make the journey from Iceland.

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A U.S. customs agent checked the boat and the Icelandic crew. The chef was the first to disembark; I learned that he sometimes cooks meals by request for Eimskip’s Portland-based employees during their overnight stay – dishes like lamb meatballs, for instance. Once the ship got the all-clear, containers started to be unloaded.

While I’m not sure of the specific contents of these containers, in general to New England, Eimskip imports bottled water (Iceland produces a whole lot of this, as I’ve written before), fish, chocolate, lamb meat, salt, ferrosilicon, and chitin (a biological product found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans that has medical and industrial purposes). In exchange, Maine exports out a whole laundry list of items: lobster, scallops, fruit concentrates, blueberries, French fries, other produce and food products, automobiles, motorcycles, cardboard, steel, paper, and scrap metal. A lot of this cargo is called “reefer cargo,” or refrigerated cargo. It’s moved in white containers with an engine in them to keep things cool.

Long story short: Maine trades lobsters and motorcycles for Iceland’s snow groomers and lamb.

I watched a transport vehicle move and stack the containers around the port. Entering and exiting the gateway, trucks carried containers emblazoned with Eimskip’s bold blue logo. One Icelander I spoke to said, “When you see containers on the rail or on the road, you feel pride.” It’s a little bit of the Arctic stretching down as far as New York or New Jersey – the farthest distance Eimskip containers will go on the back of trucks leaving Portland.

A longer history of Norse sailings in the North Atlantic

Bruarfoss’s voyage from Iceland to Nova Scotia to Maine carries on the long history of trans-Atlantic sailings. Over a thousand years ago, Norse-Icelandic merchant Bjarni Hejolfson set off from Norway to visit his parents in Iceland. Upon arriving, he found out that they had gone to Greenland, so he and his crew changed direction for the world’s largest island. In a twist of fortune, his ship was blown off course as far as present-day Canada. In 986, he thus became the first known European to spot the Americas – supposedly Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island.

Bjarni didn’t get off the ship, as he was in a rush to get back on track in time to visit his parents in Greenland. Ever the family man, he left the Americas to be discovered by other Norsemen who would follow in his tracks like Leif Erikson and now, the Icelandic crew manning Bruarfoss. 

A greater North Atlantic future

While Alaska reels from the economic downturn associated with the collapse in oil prices, Maine’s transport-oriented northern economy looks bright. Eimskip has two open positions to accommodate growth and plans to move its headquarters to Portland from Virginia next year. The shipping line is also working with Americold, one of the world’s largest cold storage companies, to build cold and dry storage facilities in its terminal. Eimskip’s new 10,000 square-foot headquarters will also reside in the new building once complete.

And although I was lucky to be in Maine on one of the three arrival dates that occur every five weeks, in the future, the arrival of Icelandic ships in Portland will likely be a more regular occurrence. 

Isfeld remarked, “I would say that Eimskip’s plans for the future are weekly vessel calls by the year 2020. Right now it’s 31 vessels a year.” Eimskip will also begin direct port-to-rail operations at some point in the future using the new infrastructure built by the Maine Department of Transportation, demonstrating the mutual support between state and foreign business in Maine. Portland’s story also draws similarities not only with past Viking voyages, but also with the strategies of emerging Arctic players like Singapore today. As the commercial Arctic becomes a more open-water, transit-oriented space, connections to the region more so than territorial presence will matter more and more.