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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scientist Sticks to Arctic Refuge

ReutersZimov taking a soil sample from melting permafrost in August near his polar research center in northeastern Siberia.
NORTHEASTERN STATION, Sakha -- When Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died and the Communist propaganda machine organized a mass outpouring of grief, Sergei Zimov hardly noticed.

Back in November 1982, the young scientist was roaming around local shops and warehouses looking for the nails he needed to finish building a scientific research station high above the Arctic Circle, which he had founded two years earlier.

"I wanted to deal with pure science, and I was a dissident, critical of communist ideas," said Zimov, now a bearded 52-year-old with a mane of wavy hair, at his research station in the desolate tundra of the Sakha republic.

"So this was just the place to be then. And it still is. My soul is at peace here," Zimov said.

In Sakha, temperatures fall as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius, and in the winter, it is dark day and night for four months.

Mikhail Gorbachev's tumultuous perestroika, bloody interethnic conflicts, the Soviet Union's demise and two Chechen wars were barely noticed by Zimov's outpost, one of just a handful of similar Arctic stations.

But even out here, the station was not immune from the economic trials that afflicted Russia after the collapse of Soviet rule.

"We had to survive on just a few rubles a day back then, and there were fears the Russian Academy of Sciences could close us," Zimov said. "Fish were our only salvation."

Fish and moose are still the staples of the station, which looks out over the steep-sided Kolyma River.

Zimov's northeastern station is unusual in the world of polar research because it is manned year-round and the scientists live with their families. Zimov and his wife, Galina, brought up their family here. Fellow scientist Sergei Davydov lives with his wife, Anna.

Galina and Anna tend the station's treasured greenhouses, where in the short Arctic summer they grow onions, lettuce and tomatoes to supplement their diet.

The climate change research conducted here has won international recognition, but Zimov and Davydov are not academics with their heads in the clouds. If they were, they might not have survived in this harsh environment.

Both think nothing of walking dozens of kilometers through the swampy tundra.

They drive the station's vehicles, including a speed boat, a sport utility vehicle, and a converted armored personnel carrier, to tackle the roughest terrain. They also pilot the station's seaplane.

At the station, a cluster of two-story wooden buildings including accommodation and a laboratory, the doors are never locked. And if Zimov's vehicle is stuck in the mud, he leaves the key in the ignition and makes his own way home.

He once left a car in the taiga 900 kilometers from the station and returned two years later to find it untouched.

"You must trust people," said Zimov, proud of being friends with local wheeler-dealers, secret policemen, hunters, fishermen and reindeer breeders alike.

"In Moscow, you have metal doors and locks and every third person looks like a security guard. What great disrespect for other people!"

The station is heated with wood chopped in the forest. Visitors -- who include a steady stream of researchers from around the world -- are struck by the atmosphere.

"I've never been in a place where every day, at every meal, science was sincerely argued, not out of intellectualism, but because people really wanted to know the truth," said Adam Wolf, a scientist at Stanford University's Carnegie Institution.

When it is too cold to conduct field work, the scientists work in the station's library, write on research papers or travel to attend conferences.

Some locals have a different technique for passing the time. "Two great drinking bouts and the winter is over," fisherman Alexei Nalyotov said, joking.

The research station is Zimov's life's work. It is also a family affair. His son Nikita grew up here, then went off to university in Novosibirsk.

A trained mathematician, he is back at the station helping his father with calculations and equations for his work tracking climate change.

Now there is a third generation: two months ago Nikita and his wife, Nastya, had a baby girl, Katya, and they expect that she too will grow up in this unique outpost.