Dreaming of Yakutsk and Prof. Chauncy Harris


I love the weather apps for the iPhone, especially the ones that let you select a place in the world and let you see what the weather conditions are like there right at that moment.

As we’ve had some extra-cold-for-Portland winter weather over the past week or so, I’ve frequently sought comfort by looking at my iPhone to see what the current temperature is in Yakutsk.

Why Yakutsk? Well, let me take you back…190px-lena_watershed

One of my favorite geography classes in college was Geography of the Soviet Union, taught by Professor Chauncy Harris. I took it in Spring of 1971, my last quarter of college before graduating.  Professor Harris – Samuel N. Harper distinguished service professor of geography at the University of Chicago – was an amazing teacher.  He died in 2003 after teaching at U of C for 44 years. I swear I remember more from that class than any other class I took in college. He taught principles and big picture ideas, and provided the kind of deep understanding that comes from learning something from someone who really groks what he is teaching. He was also an amazingly kind and personable human being.  I feel so lucky to have taken his class.

One of the things he taught was a great understanding of the geographic challenges the Soviet Union faced, largely through its northern latitudinal location and its great continental expanse.  It makes for very cold winters in the eastern part.  I remember some of his stories of Yakutsk, a city in Siberia that got so cold in the winter machinery had to be left running all the time in order to not freeze. Some call it “the coldest city on earth.”

The winters in Chicago were astonishing enough for me. I remember walking outside in cold winds so icy and fierce they literally took the breath out of one’s lungs.  One particular night I walked home when it was -20 degrees because the buses couldn’t run.  So a place that was 30 degrees below a Chicago weather extreme every single day for months on end was more than I could imagine.  But that’s Yakutsk.  And more than 200,000 people live there!!

Oyuunsky Square in Yakutsk. Check out how bundled up the people are! Image courtesy wikipedia.

Oyuunsky Square in Yakutsk. Check out how bundled up the people are! Image courtesy wikipedia.

Check out these other photos of Yakutsk on flickr. And a website from Yakutsk translated into English (very charmingly).

And here’s a video taken in 2003 when it was -44 degrees (a heat wave?):

Right now in Yakutsk it is -56 degrees. It’s not been above -50 for days on end. Can you imagine?  Actually, the winter months are some of the best months in Yakutsk, from a practical standpoint.  That’s because one can safely and reliably reach Yakutsk when the Lena River is frozen solid.  There is no bridge across the Lena in this area, because one really can’t be built there. (Something else I learned from Prof. Harris is that because most rivers in Russia flow from south to north, and freeze in winter, the start to thaw in the south and progress north, which causes no end of problems because the meltwater and floating ice has nowhere to drain, because downstream it’s still frozen. A ginormous flooding mess results and bridges can’t survive! Apparently they are working on building a bridge now that’s scheduled to be finished by 2013. Good luck with that!)

In summer months the temperatures can rise into the 90s, making Yakutsk home to some of the greatest temperature fluctuations on the planet.

According to wikipedia, Yakutsk is home to the Institute of Cosmophysical Research, which runs the Yakutsk Extensive Air Shower installation (one of the largest cosmic-ray detector arrays in the world), and the Permafrost Research Institute developed with the aim of solving the serious and costly problems associated with construction of buildings on frozen soil. Good place for it! Please note that they recommend wearing warm clothes for a tour of the Permafrost Museum, which naturally is underground!

I found a very cool article about Yakutsk published earlier this year in The Independent from the viewpoint of an outsider visiting and marveling at the place!  And of course you can buy stuff from Yakutsk on the interwebs!

I’m so happy to be able to share my deep fascination with Yakutsk with you! It’s encouraging me to try to go deeper.  I just found an email address on the Yakutsk website, so I’m going to write them and see if I can get some dialogue going.  I’ll keep you posted here!


3 responses

  1. Thanks for the nice story about Chauncy Harris, my father-in-law. I am married to his daughter.

    You are right that he was a great teacher. He was also a terrific father-in-law, husband, father, and grandfather! We all miss him reading next to the Christmas tree in our living room.

    Send me your email address, and I’ll send you a photo of Chauncy with our daughter and Christmas tree.


    Phil Straus

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