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Yakutia’s frozen deserts: A source of clean water and extreme tourist attraction

An expert has told TASS how these deserts developed in the Arctic zone and how they may be useful for Yakutia's economy

YAKUTSK, February 12. /TASS/. Yakutia's landscapes are not only tundra with permafrost, there are real deserts there, too. Professor Aleksey Galanin of the Institute for Permafrost Studies at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told TASS about how they developed in the Arctic zone and how they may be useful for Yakutia's economy.

The Tukulans, or cryo deserts, are along Yakutia’s river valley - the Lena, the Vilyui and the Linde. Their total area exceeds 60,000 square kilometers, and the largest Tukulan - called the Mahatta - occupies 500 square kilometers. According to the scientist, cryo deserts look like deserts of tropical or subtropical regions such as the Sahara in Africa, the Karakum Desert in Central Asia, or the Atacama in South America.

"The Tukulans in Yakutia formed at the end of the glacial epoch 27-12,000 years ago. The climate was much harsher than it is today. Back then, precipitation was scarce, the rivers were far shallower, and winters were extremely cold and practically without snow. The wind would swoop up sandy river sediments and carry them in different directions. At that time, the dune areas in central Yakutia occupied up to one million square kilometers, though in some places, there were little islets of cold steppe and meadows, where mammoths, bison and furry rhinoceroses wandered," he said.

Yakut scientists for the past three years, with support from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, have studied the deserts, and in 2018, they began putting together maps and probes into the water in the region.

Cryo desert as a source of drinking water

The Tukulans are located within the permafrost zone, frozen soil that is 400-600 meters deep. However, under the sands, there is either no permafrost or it is shallow, and this is a peculiarity of the Yakut cryo deserts. The thick layers of sand cover groundwater, which comes to the surface all year round.

"Inside the dunes there are a lot of meltwater areas, which is generally very atypical for Yakutia's permafrost. There are huge reserves of groundwater there - it is very pure drinking water, which flows out of springs. In the winter, during harsh frosts, temperatures in the dunes are a few degrees higher. This is because the water warms up the sand," the expert said.

According to him, the ground waters in the Tukulans could help to solve the problem with drinking water in the republic. "Yakutia faces huge water problems. In the permafrost areas, the shortage of water is huge, especially in small settlements, which are located far from big rivers. In Yakutsk, water is pumped from the Lena in the summer and winter, while smaller rivers completely freeze in the winter. Nor it is possible to use water from melting lakes, since there’s a lot of bacteria there, while groundwater in the dune area is very clean," he told TASS.

Cryo deserts and extreme tourism

Cryo deserts are not only in Yakutia, some are in Norway and Alaska. The Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska lures many fans of outdoor activities. Yakutia's Ministry of Nature says there are no plans to organize national parks in the local desert areas, though the ministry supervises the moderate-sized Tulukans located in the Lenskiye Stolby Natural Park.

According to the expert, cryo deserts are a resource for the regional economy. In addition to drinking water, the deserts have reserves of quartz sand, which can be used as an abrasive, and besides the unique areas may be used for extreme tourism. At the same time, experts say, tourists cannot harm the Tukulans, because the landscape recovers quickly.

"Inside the dunes, there are many lakes with a lot of fish - pikes longer than 1.5 m are common here. Tourists may swim and fish. Other possible attractions could be horseback riding, motorcycling or driving off-road vehicles. At the same time, the issue of nature protection is not such a big deal because people won’t harm nature. Within a couple of weeks the wind would quickly sweep away all traces, restoring the disturbed relief," the scientist explained.