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Yakutia's cryo deserts - a source of clean water and a place of extreme tourism

  • Published in Nature

The landscapes of Yakutia are represented not only by tundra with permafrost, but also by real deserts

Professor Aleksey Galanin, chief researcher of the laboratory of general geocryology of the Institute for Permafrost Studies of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told TASS about where they came from in the Arctic zone and what could be useful for the economy of Yakutia.

Tukulans, or cryo deserts, are common in the valleys of the Yakut Rivers Lena, Vilyui and Linde. Their total area exceeds 60 thousand square kilometers, and one of the largest tukulans - Makhatta - occupies 500 square kilometers. According to Galanin, cryo deserts look like deserts of tropical and subtropical regions - Sahara in Africa, Karakum in Central Asia, and Atacama in South America.

"Tukulans in Yakutia formed at the end of the glacial epoch 27-12 thousand years ago. The climate was much more severe than today: there were few precipitations, the rivers were shallow, the winters were extremely cold and almost without snow. The wind blew sand deposits of rivers and moved them in different directions. The dune areas in the territory of Central Yakutia then occupied up to 1 million square kilometers, but in places the islets of the cold steppe and meadows were preserved, along which the herds of mammoths, bison and woolly rhinos wandered,” said Galanin.

Yakut scientists for the past three years, with the support of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, studied the composition of deserts, and this year they began to map and study the water regime.

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Cryo desert as a source of drinking water

Tukulans are located within the permafrost zone, the depth of freezing of the soil reaches 400-600 meters. But under the sands the permafrost is either absent or shallow - this is one of the features of the Yakut cryo deserts. Under the layers of sand lies groundwater that comes to the surface all year round.

"Inside the dunes there are a lot of melt zones, which is very uncommon for the permafrost of Yakutia as a whole. There are huge reserves of groundwater there - this is very pure drinking water, which flows in the form of sources. In the winter, when there are severe frosts, in the dunes it is a few degrees warmer - water gives away its warmth," said Aleksey Galanin.

According to him, the ground waters of the tukulans could help solve the problem with drinking water in the republic. "There are big problems with water in Yakutia. Here there is permafrost; there is not enough water, especially in small settlements located far from big rivers. In Yakutsk, water is pumped from the Lena in summer and winter, and small rivers freeze. Water cannot be taken from thaw lakes - there are many bacteria. And the groundwater of the dune massifs is very clean," he said.


Cryo deserts - resource for the region's economy

Cryo deserts are found not only in Yakutia, they are in Norway and Alaska. In the Kobuk Sand Dunes in Alaska, a national park has been established, a very popular place for fans of outdoor activities. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Republic of Sakha, there are no plans to create a national park on the basis of Yakut cryo deserts, but the Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for small tukulans located in the ‘Lena Pillars’ Nature Park.

 According to Galanin, cryo desert is a resource for the economy of the region. In addition to drinking water, there are reserves of quartz sand, which can be used as an abrasive, as well as conditions for extreme tourism. At the same time, tourists cannot harm tukulans - the landscape can quickly recover.