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Russian Land of Permafrost and Mammoths Is Thawing

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YAKUTSK, Russia — The lab assistant reached into the freezer and lifted out a football-size object in a tattered plastic grocery bag, unwrapping its muddy covering and placing it on a wooden table. It was the severed head of a wolf.

The animal, with bared teeth and mottled fur, appeared ready to lunge. But it had been glowering for some 32,000 years — preserved in the permafrost, 65 feet underground in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia.

As the Arctic, including much of Siberia, warms at least twice as fast as the rest of the world, the permafrost — permanently frozen ground — is thawing. Oddities like the wolf’s head have been emerging more frequently in a land already known for spitting out frozen woolly mammoths whole.

The thawing of the permafrost — along with other changes triggered by global warming — is reshaping this incredibly remote region sometimes called the Kingdom of Winter. It is one of the coldest inhabited places on earth, and huge; Yakutia, if independent, would be the world’s eighth largest country.

The loss of permafrost deforms the landscape itself, knocking down houses and barns. The migration patterns of animals hunted for centuries are shifting, and severe floods wreak havoc almost every spring.

The water, washing out already limited dirt roads and rolling corpses from their graves, threatens entire villages with permanent inundation. Waves chew away the less frozen Arctic coastline.

Indigenous peoples are more threatened than ever. Residents joust constantly with nature in unpredictable ways, leaving them feeling baffled, unsettled, helpless, depressed and irritated.

“Everything is changing, people are trying to figure out how to adapt,” said Afanasiy V. Kudrin, 63, a farmer in Nalimsk, a village of 525 people above the Arctic Circle. “We need the cold to come back, but it just gets warmer and warmer and warmer.”

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the shifts are especially pronounced in Russia, where permafrost covers some two-thirds of the country at depths ranging up to almost a mile.

“People don’t comprehend the scale of this change, and our government is not even thinking about it,” said Aleksandr N. Fedorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute, a research body in Yakutsk, the regional capital.

In Yakutia, almost 20 percent of Russia, distances are vast and transportation erratic. The population is just under one million. Natives joke that every resident could claim one lake.

Yakutia’s 33 districts are the size of countries. In the far northeast, the Srednekolymsk district, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, is slightly smaller than Greece. Just 8,000 residents live in 10 villages, including 3,500 in the capital, also Srednekolymsk.

The region has been a synonym for remote for centuries. Empress Elizabeth exiled the first prominent political prisoner to Srednekolymsk in 1744, when it took a year to reach overland from St. Petersburg. There are just two main highways transiting Yakutia, with the one built mostly by Gulag prisoners under Communism still largely unpaved.

In Srednekolymsk, summer used to last from June 1 to Sept. 1, but now extends a couple weeks longer on both ends. Outsiders might not notice that the thermometer in January often hovers around -50 F, rather than -75 F. Residents call -50 “chilly.”

In a regionwide pattern, the average annual temperature in Yakutsk has risen more than four degrees, to 18.5 F from 14 F, over several decades, said Mr. Fedorov of the permafrost institute.

Warmer winters and longer summers are steadily thawing the frozen earth that covers 90 percent of Yakutia. The top layer that thaws in summer and freezes in winter can extend down as far as 10 feet where three feet used to be the maximum.

Eroding cliffs on riverbanks expose other areas, like where the wolf head appeared, that had long been deeply buried.

The thawing permafrost, and increased precipitation, have made the land wetter. The snow and rain create a vicious circle, forming an insulating layer that speeds defrosting underground.

Water backing up behind ice floes now causes ravaging floods virtually every May.

In Srednekolymsk last year, floods swamped the dirt airstrip, with its separate outhouses for men and women. Often battered Soviet turboprops are the lifeline to the world, but the airstrip had to close for a week.

Nalimsk, 11 miles north of Srednekolymsk, has flooded five years in a row. Mosquitoes grown fat in the expanding bogs swarm like kamikaze pilots. “Free acupuncture!” joked Vasily P. Okoneshnikov, 54, the village headman.

Plump black Turpan ducks used to arrive regularly during the first week of June. This year migrating birds began to descend on May 1. There were far fewer Turpans, and suddenly geese, a novelty.

Elsewhere, the migration routes of wild reindeer have shifted, while unfamiliar insects and plants inhabit the woods.

Nalimsk hunters once stored their fish and game in a 22-foot deep cave dug out of the permafrost, a kind of natural freezer. Now its thawing walls drip water, and the meat rots.

“We buy meat and it is no good, too dry,” Mr. Okoneshnikov said. “We have no choice, even if it’s shameful” to shop, rather than hunt.

Farther north, residents refuse to abandon their waterlogged, riverfront villages, afraid of losing access to whitefish, their staple diet.

The village of Beryozovka has flooded virtually every spring for a decade, its 300 residents forced onto boats for weeks to run errands like buying bread. They finally accepted a five-year project to move the village 900 yards uphill.

In the district, Beryozovka has the only concentration of Even people, one of various dwindling indigenous tribes.

The Even, who are reindeer herders, were settled only in 1954 through a government drive. They speak a distinct language; individual clans inherit ancestral songs.

“At some point they talked about abandoning the village, but people did not want to move out,” said Octyabrina R. Novoseltseva, chairwoman of the Northern Indigenous People’s Association in the Srednekolymsk region. “They would lose everything, the culture would all disappear.”

The government in distant Moscow is an abstract concept. Alaska is closer. Villagers throughout Yakutia bemoan relying on their own resources to adapt to climate change.

Even state-run institutions like the permafrost institute lack the means for the complicated field work needed to assess the full extent of permafrost loss. Nor can they gauge other fallout, like how much methane that microbes in the newly thawed ground produce, adding to global warming.

“We do not really monitor the situation, so we just have to see what it brings,” said Yevgeny M. Sleptsov, the head of the Srednekolymsk district, as he piloted a fishing boat along the Kolyma River at 10 p.m. in the muted light of the endless Arctic day.

The government is also unable to do much about other environmental problems, including wildfires surging through millions of acres of remote forest across Yakutia and the rest of Siberia. Reaching them is too costly.

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Trump’s F.D.A. Nominee Sidesteps Questions About Banning Flavored Vaping Products

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President Trump’s nominee for Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, declined to answer questions from senators in both parties about whether he would push for a ban on flavored vaping products at a confirmation hearing Wednesday.

The questions placed Dr. Hahn, a cancer executive without any Washington or governing experience, at the center of a political battle over the surge in teen vaping and the emergence of mysterious vaping-related illnesses that have killed at least 44 people and sickened more than 2,000. Most of the lung injuries reported in recent months have been attributed to THC-related products.

The Trump administration has recently retreated from a promise in September that it would ban most flavored e-cigarette products, citing concerns about the effects on businesses and repercussions from voters.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, Dr. Hahn would fill the vacancy left by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who stepped down as commissioner in April. On Tuesday, five former commissioners, including Dr. Gottlieb, endorsed Dr. Hahn.

Dr. Hahn’s views on how vaping products should be regulated would occur at a critical juncture, as e-cigarette companies begin submitting evidence ahead of a May deadline to show that their products do more good than harm. He will have to balance public outcry over teen vaping use with intense lobbying by e-cigarette manufacturers and vape shops that argue their products provide an alternative to traditional cigarettes and their users make up a potent voting bloc.

The federal government has repeatedly weakened or delayed efforts to rein in vaping products over the past decade. In 2016, the Obama administration backtracked on a proposed ban on flavored e-cigarettes, and in 2017, Dr. Gottlieb extended a key deadline for vaping manufacturers to provide evidence about their products’ effects on public health.

If he is confirmed, Dr. Hahn has said he would divest his interests in dozens of companies that do business with the F.D.A., from Coca-Cola and Starbucks to technology companies, like Alphabet, the parent company of Google, which is developing health care products. He also said he would resign his positions at institutions like M.D. Anderson, the University of California San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Pennsylvania. He said he also would recuse himself from discussions involving those institutions for a year after his resignations.

The committee chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said a vote by the committee on Dr. Hahn’s nomination is expected in early December.



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Could New York City Eliminate Free Street Parking?

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For drivers, finding a parking spot in New York City is already hard enough. There are so many regulations. So many hydrants. So many loading zones. And so few empty spaces.

Now a local transportation committee in Manhattan has broached the unthinkable: eliminating free street parking altogether.

Traffic in the committee’s 50-block stretch of the Upper West Side is “terrible” and sure to get worse, said Howard Yaruss, the chairman of the committee, which is part of the local community board.

The city has ultimate authority over parking, but the move touched off an angry debate and is a provocative example of how curb space is becoming a fierce battleground in a fight for room on New York’s crowded streets.

In the past 10 years, the city has installed dozens of miles of bus and bicycle lanes on major streets, taking away thousands of parking spaces in the process. Last month, the city did something even more radical, banning cars from 14th Street, a major thoroughfare across Manhattan.

And next year, New York will start charging drivers entering Manhattan’s most congested zones in an effort to get more cars off the roads.

The City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, says it is time to “reorient and reprioritize how we use shared street space.” Last month he pushed a $1.7 billion plan through the Council to significantly expand bike lanes.

“Cars can’t continue to be solely king of the road and the only thing we think about when we design streets,” Mr. Johnson, a Democrat who is expected to run for mayor in 2021, said in an interview.

But many car owners say they feel unfairly targeted, arguing that there are valid reasons for driving, including physical limitations that make it difficult to use trains or buses and jobs that are not easily reached by public transit.

In Chicago, neighborhood parking costs residents $25 a year; in Los Angeles, as much as $34; in Washington, $35; and in Portland, Ore., $75. In Boston, a pass for neighborhood parking is free, but officials are considering charging people with one car $25, and more for second and third cars.

“When you have a curbside parking scenario, you’re privileging the people who have cars over the pedestrians,” said James Sanders, a Manhattan architect and author who has studied parking patterns in cities. “On the basis of the primary idea of equity of space, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give this space over. On the other hand, people have had it for coming on 70 years, like a right.”

As far as parking goes, a big question mark is New York’s congestion pricing plan. Beginning in 2021, New York will be the first American city to charge drivers entering Manhattan’s commercial districts.

People in neighborhoods near the boundaries worry that a surge of cars will circle their streets, hunting for free parking to avoid the congestion pricing tolls. Councilman Mark D. Levine, a Democrat who represents Upper Manhattan, has proposed a residential plan to deal with “suburban commuters dumping their cars in our neighborhoods.”

City officials say residential parking fees in other cities have not been a panacea, in part because neighborhood permits usually do not deal with the supply-and-demand problem — too many cars for the number of spaces.

Mr. Yaruss, the transportation committee chairman, described watching an ambulance with lights flashing get stuck behind a double-parked car next to his apartment building.



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Oxygen on Mars Adds to Atmospheric Mysteries

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There is not much air on Mars — the atmospheric pressure there is less than one one-hundredth of what we breathe on Earth — but what little is there has baffled planetary scientists.

Oxygen, which makes up about 0.13 percent of the Martian atmosphere, is the latest puzzler.

In a paper published this month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, scientists working with data gathered by NASA’s Curiosity rover reported that levels of oxygen unexpectedly varied with the seasons on Mars, at least in the neighborhood that Curiosity has been driving around since 2012.

That follows the rover’s reading earlier this year of a large burst of methane, another gas emitted on Earth by living things and which perplexingly disappeared almost immediately.

“It’s confusing but it’s exciting,” said Sushil K. Atreya, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan who works on Curiosity’s atmospheric measurements. “It keeps us on our toes. Mars is certainly not boring.”

A Mars year lasts 687 days, so the scientists studying the oxygen variations were able to examine the behavior over almost three Martian years, through December 2017.

The level of oxygen “rises relatively higher in the spring,” said Melissa G. Trainer, a research space scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of the new paper, “and then it comes down lower, below what we would expect later in the year.”

Carbon dioxide is the main ingredient of Martian air, and scientists have understood for decades its ebb and flow. At the poles in winter, it falls out of the air and freezes to ice, then wafts back into the atmosphere as temperatures warm in the spring.

High in the Martian atmosphere, ultraviolet light breaks apart carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen atoms and then closer to the ground, interactions with water shepherd the oxygen atoms into molecular pairs.

Because oxygen molecules should be pretty stable, persisting about a decade, researchers expected that the amount of oxygen molecules would remain almost constant.

Curiosity’s atmospheric measurements showed exactly that pattern for nitrogen and argon, two other trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. But, for oxygen, the concentrations shot up by a third during spring.

“This was a very unexpected result, an unexpected phenomenon,” Dr. Trainer said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about the oxygen cycle on Mars. That’s become apparent.”

Adding to the mystery, the cycle was not the same each year, and the scientists could not find an obvious explanation — like temperature, dust storms or ultraviolet radiation — for what changed from year to year.

On Earth, most oxygen is generated by the photosynthesis of plants. But so far, for the Mars scientists, that is far down on the list of explanations.

“You’ve got to rule out all of the other processes first before you go there,” Dr. Atreya said.

More likely sources are chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates known to exist in the Martian dirt. “It’s pretty clear you need a flux from the surface,” Dr. Atreya said. “Nothing in the atmosphere is going to create this kind of rise.”

But how these chemicals might release and absorb enough oxygen to explain the seasonal rise and fall is difficult to figure out, especially as there are only 19 oxygen measurements over five and a half years.

An intriguing possibility is that the oxygen mystery might be tied to another trace gas, methane, that is also acting strangely in the Martian atmosphere.

“It’s not entirely clear if there is a correlation or not,” Dr. Trainer said.

Since 2003, several teams of scientists have reported large bursts of methane based on measurements from Earth-based telescopes, orbiting spacecraft and the Curiosity rover. Other times, the methane has been largely absent.

The presence of methane was a surprise to scientists, because the known processes to create the gas are either biological — methane-producing microbes — or geothermal, which would be a promising environment for life to exist on present-day Mars.

Now scientists want to know not only how methane is generated on Mars but how it quickly disappears. In June, Curiosity observed a particularly strong burp of methane — 21 parts per billion by volume. But when it repeated the experiment a few days later, it came up empty — less than 1 part per billion.

The European Space Agency’s orbiting Mars Express spacecraft passed over Gale Crater, the site of the rover, just about five hours after Curiosity measured the burst — and did not detect anything. (The same instrument corroborated a 2013 methane burst observed by Curiosity.)

“I would say that it seems this spike measured by Curiosity was very short-lived and local,” said Marco Giuranna, a scientist at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy who is in charge of the Mars Express instrument.

Even between bursts, methane on Mars poses a mystery. Curiosity has measured a low but persistent presence of methane, about 410 parts per trillion, which rises and falls with the seasons. But a newer European orbiter, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, with the ability to measure as little methane as 50 parts per trillion, has yet to see any methane at all since it started taking measurements in April last year.



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