The Local Thickness Of Permafrost

The thickness and areal distribution of permafrost are directly affected by snow and vegetation cover, topography, bodies of water, the interior heat of the Earth, and the temperature of the atmosphere.

ThE Effects of Climate

The most conspicuous change in thickness of permafrost is related to climate. At Barrow, Alaska, the mean annual air temperature is -12°C (10T), and the thickness is 400 metres (about 1,300 feet). At Fairbanks, Alaska, in the discontinuous zone of permafrost in central Alaska, the mean annual air temperature is -3°C (27T), and the thickness is about 90 metres (about 300 feet). Near the southern border of permafrost, the mean annual air temperature is about 0 or -1°C, and the perennially frozen ground is only a few feet thick.

If the mean annual air temperature is the same in two areas, the permafrost will be thicker where the conductivity of the ground is higher and the geothermal gradient is less. A. H. Lachenbruch of the U.S. Geological Survey reported an interesting example from northern Alaska. The mean annual air temperatures at Cape Simpson and Prudhoe Bay are similar, but permafrost thickness is 275 metres (900 feet) at Cape Simpson and about 650 metres (about 2,100 feet) at Prudhoe Bay because rocks at Prudhoe Bay are more siliceous and have a higher conductivity and a lower geothermal gradient than rocks at Cape Simpson.

ThE Effects of WAter Bodies

Bodies of water, lakes, rivers, and the sea have a profound effect on the distribution of permafrost. A deep lake that does not freeze to the bottom during the winter will be underlain by a zone of thawed material. If the minimum horizontal dimension of the deep lake is about twice as much as the thickness of permafrost nearby, there probably exists an unfrozen vertical zone extending all the way to the bottom of permafrost. Such thawed areas extending all the way through permafrost are widespread under rivers and sites of recent rivers in the discontinuous zone of permafrost and under major, deep rivers in the far north. Under the wide floodplains of rivers in the subarctic, the permafrost is sporadically distributed both laterally and vertically. Small, shallow lakes that freeze to the bottom each winter are underlain by a zone of thawed material, but the thawed zone does not completely penetrate permafrost except near the southern border of permafrost.

The Effects of Solar radiation, vegetation, and Snow cover

In as much as south-facing hillslopes receive more incoming solar energy per unit area than other slopes, they are warmer. Permafrost is generally absent on these in the discontinuous zone and is thinner in the continuous zone. The main role of vegetation in permafrost areas is to shield perennially frozen ground from solar energy. Vegetation is an excellent insulating medium and removal or disturbance of it, either by natural processes or by humans, causes thawing of the underlying permafrost. In the continuous zone the permafrost table may merely be lowered by the disturbance of vegetation, but in a discontinuous zone permafrost may be completely destroyed in certain areas.

Snow cover also influences heat flow between the ground and the atmosphere and therefore affects the distribution of permafrost. If the net effect of timely snowfalls is to prevent heat from leaving the ground in the cold winter, permafrost becomes warmer. Actually, local differences in vegetation and snowfall in areas of

Greenery, such as the vegetation surrounding this permafrost lake in Canada, absorbs heat from the sun and insulates the frozen ground underneath. Shutterstock.com

thin and warm permafrost are critical for the formation and existence ofthe perennially frozen ground. Permafrost is not present in areas of the world where great snow thicknesses persist throughout most of the winter.

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