Permafrost is perennially frozen ground, a naturally occurring material with a temperature colder than 0°C (32T) continuously for two or more years. Such a layer of frozen ground is designated exclusively on the basis of temperature. Part or all of its moisture may be unfrozen, depending on the chemical composition of the water or the depression of the freezing point by capillary forces. Permafrost with saline soil moisture, for example, may be colder than 0 °C for several years but contain no ice and thus not be firmly cemented. Most permafrost, however, is consolidated by ice.

Permafrost with no water, and thus no ice, is termed dry permafrost. The upper surface of permafrost is called the permafrost table. In permafrost areas, the surface layer of ground that freezes in the winter (seasonally frozen ground) and thaws in summer is called the active layer. The thickness of the active layer depends mainly on the moisture content, varying from less than a foot in thickness in wet, organic sediments to several feet in well-drained gravels.

Permafrost forms and exists in a climate where the mean annual air temperature is 0°C (32°F) or colder. Such a climate is generally characterized by long, cold winters with little snow and short, relatively dry, cool summers. Permafrost, therefore, is widespread in the Arctic, sub-arctic, and Antarctica. It is estimated to underlie 20 percent of the world's land surface.

Thawed surface of the permafrost on the tundra in summer, Taymyr Peninsula, Siberia. © John Hartley/NHPA


The strength and thickness of permafrost in a given region depends on variations in air and ground temperature, as well as geothermal heating. The depth of the frozen ground waxes and wanes according to seasonal cycles. As the process of climate change brings warmer conditions to many cold regions, some areas of frozen ground are melting in order to reach a new equilibrium with the present climate.


In areas where the mean annual air temperature becomes colder than 0°C (32T), some of the ground frozen in the winter will not be completely thawed in the summer. Therefore, a layer of permafrost will form and continue to grow downward gradually each year from the seasonally frozen ground. The permafrost layer will become thicker each winter, its thickness controlled by the thermal balance between the heat flow from the Earth's interior and that flowing outward into the atmosphere. This balance depends on the mean annual air temperature and the geo-thermal gradient. The average geothermal gradient is an increase of i°C (i.8°F) for every 30 to 60 metres (about 100 to 200 feet) of depth. Eventually the thickening permafrost layer reaches an equilibrium depth at which the amount of geothermal heat reaching the permafrost is on the average equal to that lost to the atmosphere. Thousands of years are required to attain a state of equilibrium where permafrost is hundreds of feet thick.

The annual fluctuation of air temperature from winter to summer is reflected in a subdued manner in the upper few metres of the ground. This fluctuation diminishes rapidly with depth, being only a few degrees at 7.5 metres (about 25 feet), and is barely detectable at 15 metres (about 50 feet). The level of zero amplitude, at which fluctuations are hardly detectable, is 9 to 15 metres (30 to 50 feet). If the permafrost is in thermal equilibrium, the temperature at the level of zero amplitude is generally regarded as the minimum temperature of the permafrost. Below this depth the temperature increases steadily under the influence of heat from the Earth's interior. The temperature of permafrost at the depth of minimum annual seasonal change varies from near 0°C at the southern limit of permafrost to -i0°C (i4°F) in northern Alaska and -i3°C (9°F) in northeastern Siberia.

As the climate becomes colder or warmer, but maintaining a mean annual temperature colder than 0°C, the temperature of the permafrost correspondingly rises or declines, resulting in changes in the position of the base of permafrost. The position of the top of permafrost will be lowered by thawing when the climate warms to a mean annual air temperature warmer than 0°C. The rate at which the base or top of permafrost is changed depends not only on the amount of climatic fluctuation but also on the amount of ice in the ground and the composition of the ground, conditions that in part control the geothermal gradient. If the geothermal gradient is known and if the surface temperature remains stable for a long period of time, it is, therefore, possible to predict from a knowledge of the mean annual air temperature the thickness of permafrost in a particular area that is remote from bodies of water.


Permafrost is the result of present climate. Many temperature profiles show, however, that permafrost is not in equilibrium with present climate at the sites of measurement. Some areas show, for example, that climatic warming since the last third of the 19th century has caused a warming of the permafrost to a depth of more than 100 metres (about 330 feet). In such areas much of the permafrost is a product of a colder, former climate.

The distribution and characteristics of subsea permafrost point to a similar origin. At the height of the glacial epoch, especially about 20,000 years ago, most of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean was exposed to polar climates for thousands of years. These climates caused cold permafrost to form to depths of more than

700 metres (about 2,300 feet). Subsequently, within the past 10,000 years, the Arctic Ocean rose and advanced over a frozen landscape to produce a degrading relict sub-sea permafrost. The perennially frozen ground is no longer exposed to a cold atmosphere, and the salt water has caused a reduction in strength and consequent melting of the ice-rich permafrost (which is bonded by freshwater ice). The temperature of subsea permafrost, near -i°C (30°F), is no longer as low as it was in glacial times and is therefore sensitive to warming from geothermal heat and to the encroaching activities of humans.

It is thought that permafrost first occurred in conjunction with the onset of glacial conditions about three million years ago, during the late Pliocene Epoch. In the subarctic at least, most permafrost probably disappeared during interglacial times and reappeared in glacial times. Most existing permafrost in the subarctic probably formed in the cold (glacial) period of the past 100,000 years.

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