Siberia Heatwave Sees Buildings Split in Two As Permafrost Thaws

A two-story residential building broke apart as layers of permafrost thawed during a summer heatwave in Yakutsk, Russia—often referred to as the "world's coldest city."

Winter temperatures in Yakutsk, in east Siberia, regularly plummet to below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with the record low standing at minus 83 degrees Fahrenheit.

But while the city, the largest in the world built on continuous permafrost, is no stranger to relatively hot weather at this time of year, climate change is contributing to warmer winters, longer summers, and more extreme heat waves in the region, and Siberia as a whole.

In fact, Siberia has been experiencing abnormally high temperatures for several months and the region saw an early start to summer during which a staggering measurement of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit recorded on Saturday, June 20 in the small town of Verkhoyansk, according to Russian weather data that has yet to be verified.

This warming climate—the average annual temperature in Yakutsk has risen more than four degrees over the past few decades—is leading to increased melting of the highest permafrost layers on which the city lies, threatening the very foundations of its buildings as the ground subsides.

"The change of landscape tremendously affects any kind of buildings or roads or structure that you have," Amber Soja, from NASA's Langley Research Center, told Newsweek.

The building in Yakutsk, located in the city's outskirts, started breaking apart in the early hours of June 24, when a roughly 4-inch crack appeared inside three flats and on the outer walls, The Siberian Times reported. Fortunately, residents realized what was happening and rushed out of the building.

"The situation caught us completely off guard, none of us had time to pick up documents or to take any other of our belongings with us. People ran in such a rush they didn't even have time to shut doors,' one resident of the building told The Siberian Times.

Most buildings in Yakutsk are built on deep concrete piles that sink deep into the permafrost in order to provide a solid foundation. But emergency workers who inspected the building after the cracks appeared found that one of the piles was broken. And beneath the building itself, they found a pool of meltwater, which they say could have played a role in the damage to the pile.

As Yakutsk and the wider region experiences rising air and ground temperatures, increased permafrost melting can cause the ground to subside, which can lead to the collapse of buildings.

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself expressed concern over the potentially severe impact heat waves could have for the various Russian cities that are built on permafrost.

"As you know, Russia is a northern country, and 70 percent of our territory is located in the north latitudes," Putin said. "Some of our cities were built north of the Arctic Circle, on the permafrost. If it begins to thaw, you can imagine what consequences it would have. It's very serious."

cracked building, permafrost, Yakutsk, Russia
A photo captured on November 26, 2018 shows a cracked and partially repaired panel apartment building in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images