permafrost

permafrost

[pur-muh-frawst, -frost]
permafrost, permanently frozen soil, subsoil, or other deposit, characteristic of arctic and some subarctic regions; similar conditions are also found at very high altitudes in mountain ranges. In 1962 measurements in a borehole drilled on Melville Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, showed that the ground was frozen to a depth of at least 1,475 ft (450 m); comparable thicknesses have been found in other far north regions. Tundras, though underlaid by permafrost, today support centers of population in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. Permafrost is a very fragile system that may easily be damaged or destroyed by the presence of man-made heat. A controversy developed in the late 1960s and early 70s over the construction of an oil pipeline from the Alaska North Slope to the southern part of the state. Critics of the project argued that if the pipeline containing hot oil ever came into contact with the permafrost, it would melt the permafrost; the pipeline would then sink and eventually break. The oil spilled during the breakage would result in a major ecological disaster. It was decided to build the pipeline with insulated pipe raised above the permafrost or on gravel beds in order to prevent melting and thus preserve both the pipeline and the ecosystem.

Perennially frozen earth, with a temperature below 32 °F (0 °C) continuously for two years or more. Permafrost is estimated to underlie 20percnt of the Earth's land surface and reaches depths of 5,000 ft (1,500 m) in northern Siberia. It occurs in 85percnt of Alaska, more than half of Russia and Canada, and probably all of Antarctica. Permafrost has a significant effect on plant and animal life, and it presents special problems in engineering projects. All land use in permafrost environments must take into account the terrain's special sensitivity; if the delicate natural balance is not maintained, extensive degradation and ecological damage may result.

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This article is about frozen ground. For other meanings, see Permafrost (disambiguation).

In geology, permafrost or permafrost soil is soil at or below the freezing point of water (0 °C or 32 °F) for two or more years. Ice is not always present, as may be in the case of nonporous bedrock, but it frequently occurs and it may be in amounts exceeding the potential hydraulic saturation of the ground material. Most permafrost is located in high latitudes (i.e. land in close proximity to the North and South poles), but alpine permafrost may exist at high altitudes in much lower latitudes.

The extent of permafrost can vary as the climate changes. Today, approximately 20% of the Earth's land mass is covered by permafrost (including discontinuous permafrost) or glacial ice. Overlying permafrost is a thin active layer that seasonally thaws during the summer. Plant life can be supported only within the active layer since growth can occur only in soil that is fully thawed for some part of the year. Thickness of the active layer varies by year and location, but is typically 0.6–4 m (2 to 12 feet) thick. In areas of continuous permafrost and harsh winters the depth of the permafrost can be as much as 1493 m (4510 ft) in the northern Lena and Yana River basins in Siberia.

Continuous and discontinuous permafrost

Permafrost will typically form in any climate where the mean annual air temperature is less than the freezing point of water. Exceptions are found in moist-wintered forest climates, such as in Northern Scandinavia and North-Eastern Russia west of the Urals, where snow acts as an insulating blanket. The bottoms of glaciers can also be free of permafrost, although this is not common.

Typically, the below-ground temperature will be less variable from season to season than the air temperature, with temperatures tending to increase with depth. Thus, if the mean annual air temperature is only slightly below 0 °C (32 °F), permafrost will form only in spots that are sheltered — usually with a northerly aspect. This creates what is known as discontinuous permafrost. Usually, permafrost will remain discontinuous in a climate where the mean annual soil surface temperature is between −5 and 0 °C (23 to 32 °F). In the moist-wintered areas mentioned before, there may not be even discontinuous permafrost down to −2 °C. Discontinuous permafrost is often further divided into extensive discontinuous permafrost, where permafrost covers between 50 and 90 percent of the landscape and is usually found in areas with mean annual temperatures between −2˚ and −4˚C (28˚ and 25˚ F), and sporadic permafrost, where permafrost cover is less than 50 percent of the landscape and typically occurs at mean annual temperatures between 0˚ and −2˚C (32˚ and 28˚F).

In soil science, the sporadic permafrost zone is abbreviated SPZ and the extensive discontinuous permafrost zone DPZ.

There are exceptions in un-glaciated Siberia and Alaska where the present depth of permafrost is a relic of climatic conditions during glacial ages where winters were up to 11 °C (20 °F) colder than those of today. At mean annual soil surface temperatures below −5 °C (23 °F) the influence of aspect can never be sufficient to thaw permafrost and a zone of continuous permafrost (abbreviated to CPZ) forms. There are also "fossil" cold anomalies in the Geothermal gradient in areas where deep permafrost developed during the Pleistocene that still persists down to several hundred metres. The Suwałki cold anomaly in Poland led to the recognition that similar thermal disturbances related to Pleistocene-Holocene climatic changes are recorded in boreholes throughout Poland.

A line of continuous permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere (Frozen Ground 28, 2004, p5) is formed from the most northerly points at which permafrost sometimes thaws or is interrupted by regions without permafrost. North of this line all land is covered by permafrost or glacial ice. The "line" of continuous permafrost lies further north at some longitudes than others and can gradually move northward or southward due to regional climatic changes. In the southern hemisphere, most of the equivalent line would fall within the Southern Ocean if there were land there. Most of the Antarctic continent is overlain by glaciers.

Permafrost extent

Measurement of the depth and extent of permafrost may be an indicator of global warming as recent years (1998 and 2001) have seen record thawing of permafrost in Alaska and Siberia. This thawing has led to stands of trees falling, labelled drunken trees, due to insufficient rooting. In the Yukon, the zone of continuous permafrost has moved 100 kilometres poleward since 1899, but accurate records only go back 30 years. It is thought that permafrost thawing could exacerbate global warming by releasing methane and other hydrocarbons, which are powerful greenhouse gases. It also could encourage erosion because permafrost lends stability to barren Arctic slopes.

At the Last Glacial Maximum, continuous permafrost covered a much greater area than it does today, covering all of ice-free Europe south to about Szeged and the Sea of Azov (then dry land) and China south to Beijing. In North America, only an extremely narrow belt of permafrost existed south of the ice sheet at about the latitude of New Jersey through southern Iowa and northern Missouri. In the southern hemisphere, there is some evidence for former permafrost from this period in central Otago and Argentine Patagonia, but was probably discontinuous.

Patterned ground

Patterned ground is a term used to describe the distinct, and often symmetrical geometric shapes formed by ground material in periglacial regions.

Time to form deep permafrost

Time taken for permafrost to reach depth
Time (yr) Permafrost Depth (m)
1 4.44 (0.002759 mi.)
350 79.9 (0.049648 mi.)
3500 219.3
35000 461.4
100000 567.8
225000 626.5
775000 687.7

It has been calculated that the time required to form the deep permafrost underlying Prudhoe Bay, Alaska is 500,740 years. This time extends over several glacial and interglacial cycles of the Pleistocene and suggests that the present climate of Prudhoe Bay is probably considerably warmer than it has been on average over that period. Such warming over the past 15,000 years is widely accepted. The table to the right shows that the first hundred metres of permafrost forms relatively quickly but that deeper levels take progressively longer.

Construction on permafrost

Building on permafrost is difficult due to the heat of the building (or pipeline) melting the permafrost and sinking. This problem has three common solutions: using foundations on wood piles; building on a thick gravel pad (usually 1-2 meters/3.3-6.6 feet thick); or using anhydrous ammonia heat pipes. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System uses insulated heat pipes to prevent the pipeline from sinking. Qingzang railway in Tibet was built using a variety of methods to keep the ground cool.

At the Permafrost Research Institute in Yakutsk, it has been found that the sinking of large buildings into the ground (known to the Yakuts before Yakutsk was founded) can be prevented by using stilts extending down to about fifteen metres or more. At this depth the temperature does not change with the seasons, remaining at about -5 °C (23F).

References

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