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Permafrost

Permafrost

About 20% of Earth's surface is covered by permafrost, land that is frozen year-round. Permafrost occurs at high latitudes or at very high altitudesanywhere the mean annual soil temperature is below freezing . About half of Canada and Russia, much of northern China, most of Greenland and Alaska, and probably all of Antarctica are underlain by permafrost. Areas underlain by permafrost are classified as belonging to either the continuous zone or the discontinuous zone. Permafrost occurs everywhere within the continuous zone, except under large bodies of water , and underlies the discontinuous zone in irregular zones of varying size. Fairbanks, Alaska, lies within the discontinuous zone, while Greenland is in the continuous zone.

The surface layer of soil in a permafrost zone may thaw during the warmer months, and the upper layer of the frozen zone is known as the permafrost table. Like the water table , it may rise and fall according to environmental conditions. When the surface layer thaws, it often becomes waterlogged because the meltwater can only permeate slowly, or not at all, into the frozen layer below. Partial melting coupled with irregular drainage leads to the creation of hummocky topography . Walking on permafrost is extremely difficult, because the surface is spongy, irregular, and often wet. Waterlogging of the surface layer also causes slopes in permafrost areas to be unstable and prone to failure.

Permafrost provides a stable base for construction only if the ground remains frozen. Unfortunately, construction often warms the ground, thawing the upper layers. Special care must be taken when building in permafrost regions, and structures are often elevated above the land surface on stilts. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, along much of its length, is elevated on artificially cooled posts, and communities in permafrost regions often must place pipes and wires in above-ground conduits rather than burying them. Even roads can contribute to warming and thawing of permafrost, and are generally built atop a thick bed of gravel and dirt.

See also Creep

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permafrost

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.

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pergelic

pergelic The lowest of the soil-temperature classes for family groupings of soils in the soil taxonomy system, applied to soils in temperate regions. The assessment of soil temperature is based on the mean annual temperature, and on the difference between mean summer and mean winter temperature, measured at a depth of 50 cm or at the surface of the underlying rock, whichever is shallower. In order of ascending temperature, the higher-temperature classes in temperate-region soils are called cryic, frigid, mesic, thermic, and hyperthermic, and in tropical regions the scale from cold to hot is isofrigid, isomesic, isothermic, and isohyperthermic.

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pergelic

pergelic The lowest of the soil-temperature classes for family groupings of soils in the USDA Soil Taxonomy system, applied to soils in temperate regions. The assessment of soil temperature is based on mean annual temperatures, and on differences between mean summer and mean winter temperatures, measured at a depth of 50 cm or at the surface of the underlying rock, whichever is shallower. Higher temperature classes in temperate region soils are called cryic, frigid, mesic, thermic, and hyperthermic, and in tropical regions the scale from cold to hot is isofrigid, isomesic, isothermic, and isohyperthermic.

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pergelic

pergelic The lowest of the soil-temperature classes for family groupings of soils in the USDA Soil Taxonomy system, applied to soils in temperate regions. The assessment of soil temperature is based on mean annual temperatures, and on differences between mean summer and mean winter temperatures, measured at a depth of 50 cm or at the surface of the underlying rock, whichever is shallower. Higher temperature classes in temperate region soils are called cryic, frigid, mesic, thermic, and hyperthermic, and in tropical regions the scale from cold to hot is isofrigid, isomesic, isothermic, and isohyperthermic.

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permafrost

permafrost(pergelisol) The permanently frozen ground which occupies some 26 per cent of the Earth's land surface under thermal conditions where temperatures below 0°C have persisted for at least two consecutive winters and the intervening summer. Considerable thicknesses may develop (e.g. 600 m on the North Slope of Alaska and 1400 m in Siberia, but these are partly relicts of the last glaciation). Permafrost may contain an unfrozen unit, called ‘talik’, and may be overlain by an active layer. The permafrost may be continuous, discontinuous, intermittent, or sporadic.

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permafrost

permafrost (pergelisol) Permanently frozen ground which occupies some 26% of the Earth's land surface under thermal conditions where temperatures below 0°C have persisted for at least two consecutive winters and the intervening summer. Considerable thicknesses may develop, e.g. 600 m on the North Slope of Alaska, and 1400 m in Siberia, but these are partly relict from the last glaciation. Permafrost may contain an unfrozen unit, called ‘talik’, and may be overlain by an active layer.

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permafrost

permafrost Land that is permanently frozen, often to a considerable depth. The top few centimetres generally thaw in the summer, but the meltwater is not able to sink into the ground because of the frozen subsoil. If the landscape is fairly flat, surface water lies on the ground throughout the summer. Construction work is very difficult, and many methods have been employed in Russia, Canada and Alaska to overcome the problems. See also tundra

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permafrost

per·ma·frost / ˈpərməˌfrôst; -ˌfräst/ • n. a thick subsurface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year, occurring chiefly in polar regions.

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permafrost

permafrost permanently frozen subsoil. XX. f. next, FROST.

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permafrost

permafrostaccost, cost, frost, lost, Prost, riposte •teleost • Pentecost • oncost • glasnost •compost • star-crossed • hoar frost •permafrost

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Permafrost

Permafrost

Geologists define permafrost as soil or rock that remains frozen for a time period in excess of two years. The composition of permafrost can vary widely depending on the geology and geomorphology of the area in which the permafrost forms. Although ice is usually a component of permafrost (e.g., ranging from 5% to 35% of the composition), contrary to popular assumptions, permafrost may contain few water ice crystals.

About 20% of Earths surface is covered by permafrost. Permafrost occurs at high latitudes or very high altitudes in places where the mean annual soil temperature is below freezing. About half of Canada and Russia, much of northern China, most of Greenland and Alaska, and probably all of Antarctica are underlain by permafrost. Areas underlain by permafrost are classified as belonging to either the continuous zone or the discontinuous zone. Permafrost occurs everywhere within the continuous zone, except under large bodies of water, and underlies the discontinuous zone in irregular zones of varying size. Fairbanks, Alaska, lies within the discontinuous zone, whereas Greenland is in the continuous zone.

The surface layer of soil in a permafrost zone may thaw during the warmer months, and the upper layer of the frozen zone is known as the permafrost table. Like the water table, it may rise and fall according to environmental conditions. When the surface layer thaws, it often becomes waterlogged because the melt-water can only permeate slowly, if at all, into the frozen layer below. Partial melting coupled with irregular drainage leads to the creation of hummocky topography. Walking on partially thawed permafrost is difficult, because the surface is spongy, irregular, and often wet. Waterlogging also causes slopes in permafrost areas to be unstable and prone to failure.

Permafrost provides a stable base for construction only if the ground remains frozen. Unfortunately, construction often warms the ground, thawing the upper layers. Special care must be taken when building in permafrost regions, and structures are often elevated above the land surface on stilts. Much of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is elevated on artificially cooled posts, and communities in permafrost regions often must place pipes and wires above ground rather than burying them. Even roads can contribute to warming and thawing of permafrost, and are generally built atop a thick bed of gravel and dirt.

In addition developing special techniques to assure the stability of structures built in permafrost areas, a number of scientific studies are currently centered on understanding potential relationships between carbon trapping and release associated with permafrost formation and melting to long-term global warming and cooling cycles.

See also Geochemistry; Geologic time; Global climate; Soil conservation; Tundra.

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Permafrost

Permafrost

Introduction

Permafrost is any soil that stays frozen for two or more years. The soil above a permafrost layer typically thaws at

the surface during the summer to form a shallow active layer where plants are able to grow and flower. Perma-frost is found at high latitudes and altitudes and cloaks roughly 25% of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere.

Because cold slows or prevents decay, permafrost can contain large amounts of carbon, mostly in the form of roots, leaves, and other organic materials that have accumulated over thousands of years. Estimates of the amount of carbon stored in permafrost globally range from 350 to 900 billion metric tons (gigatons). For comparison, the atmosphere currently contains about 730 gigatons of carbon, over a third of which has been placed in the atmosphere by people since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, contributing to a global rise in temperature.

The Arctic (far north), where most permafrost is located, is warming more rapidly than the rest of the planet, with some areas experiencing an average temperature increase of 2.5°F (1.4°C)—more than twice the current global average. Warming of the air and lengthening summer months have led to the increasing warming and melting of permafrost and the deepening of the active layer. This trend will likely open up a substantial amount of organic material to decay, potentially releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, which would exacerbate global warming.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Permafrost has repeatedly expanded and contracted its range and depth at northern latitudes over the last two million years in close conjunction with the expansion and contraction of continental ice sheets and the cooling and warming of global climate. Glaciers and permafrost reached their most recent maximum at the end of the Little Ice Age about 150 years ago.

Scientists first noticed recent widespread warming and melting of permafrost in the 1960s, when the U.S. Geological Survey began recording rising temperatures in Arctic boreholes. Since then, researchers have documented temperature increases in permafrost around the globe. In the United States, the permafrost below the trans-Alaska oil pipeline warmed 1.08-2.7°F (.6-1.5°C) between 1983 and 2003. The permafrost in eastern Siberia has been warming an average of .05°F (0.03°C) every year between 1960 and 1992. Permafrost temperatures in the Altai region of Mongolia and the Tian Shan Mountains of central Asia have risen by as much as 0.36°F (0.2°C) per decade since the early 1970s. In the Tian Shan Mountains, this has led to a 23% increase in the thickness of the active layer during the summer. The high Qinghai Plateau in Tibet has seen similar changes.

The effect of rising temperatures on permafrost is not identical in all regions. Melting is proceeding fastest in the southerly and lower-altitude regions of permafrost range, where the frozen soil is typically patchy and only a few meters thick. In northern Manitoba, Canada, for example, the permafrost's perimeter is retreating an average of 1 ft (31 cm) a year, leaving behind bogs and drowned forest. Some computer models have shown that significant increases in average temperature could result in the loss of 25-90% of near-surface permafrost over the next century as the active layer deepens. But scientists are uncertain about whether and how quickly thicker permafrost will melt. In the coldest parts of the Arctic, permafrost can be tens to hundreds of meters thick and may take centuries or millennia to disappear completely, if at all. In addition, localized variations in vegetation, hydrology, and terrain, as well as inadequate and highly localized data collection, have complicated efforts to determine global trends in permafrost degradation and make definitive predictions.

Impacts and Issues

Widespread melting of permafrost has major implications for ecosystems, human infrastructure, and climate warming.

WORDS TO KNOW

ALBEDO: A numerical expression describing the ability of an object or planet to reflect light.

BOREAL FOREST: Type of forest covering much of northern Europe, Asia, and North America, composed mostly of coniferous evergreen trees. Although low in biodiversity, boreal forest covers more of Earth's land area than any other biome.

BOREHOLES: Hole or shaft drilled into solid ground or a glacier for the purpose of extracting information rather than some resource (such as petroleum). In climate research, temperature measurements are often made along the height of a borehole: this information can be mathematically processed (deconvolved) to give information about past changes of surface temperature up to several centuries past.

DEFORESTATION: Those practices or processes that result in the change of forested lands to non-forest uses. This is often cited as one of the major causes of the enhanced greenhouse effect for two reasons: 1) the burning or decomposition of the wood releases carbon dioxide; and 2) trees that once removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis are no longer present and contributing to carbon storage.

FOSSIL FUELS: Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.

HYDROLOGY: The science that deals with global water (both liquid and solid), its properties, circulation, and distribution.

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The period, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, during which humans began to use steam engines as a major source of power.

METHANE: A compound of one hydrogen atom combined with four hydrogen atoms, formula CH4. It is the simplest hydro-carbon compound. Methane is a burnable gas that is found as a fossil fuel (in natural gas) and is given off by rotting excrement.

SINKHOLE: A natural depression in the surface of the land caused by the collapse of the roof of a cavern or subterranean passage, generally occurring in limestone regions.

STEPPES: Treeless biome dominated by short grasses (as opposed to prairies, which are dominated by long grasses).

In areas with a significant amount of ice in perma-frost and poor drainage, melting can lead to soil collapse, termed “wet thermokarst,” and the drowning of trees and shrubs in newly formed wetlands and lakes. The decay of submerged plant material releases the greenhouse gas methane. In areas on slopes and highlands with good drainage, the melting of permafrost can result in what is termed “dry thermokarst,” the collapse of soil, resulting in increased run-off and erosion and decreased ground water content. In boreal forests, this can eventually lead to the replacement of trees with dry steppes.

Degradation of permafrost can lead to significant damage to human infrastructure in the Arctic and sub-arctic and may eventually force the abandonment of some structures if the cost of repair becomes too great. Pockets of collapsed soil have broken building foundations, buckled highways, and destabilized pipelines in central Alaska, for example, and sinkholes have caused major problems for industry in Siberia.

Most importantly, the widespread melting of permafrost may release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as formerly frozen organic material becomes available for decay, contributing to even greater warming. If even a small fraction of permafrost carbon is released into the atmosphere, it could easily match or surpass the current human rate of carbon emissions— about 9 gigatons annually, mostly from deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.

However, this feedback mechanism is poorly understood and may be moderated by several negative feedback mechanisms. Warmer temperatures have led to a thicker layer of insulating moss in some areas, for example, helping keep permafrost cold during the warmer months. Advancing forests and shrublands, and other changes in vegetation, may help draw excess carbon back out of the air, though others—such as the shift to bogs—may release more carbon as methane. Also, advancing forests and shrublands decrease albedo (reflectivity), contributing to warming. Meanwhile, the cooling effect of deeper layers of permafrost may stave off extensive melting in surface layers.

See Also Feedback Factors; Melting; Tundra.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Periodicals

Christensen, Torben R., et al. “Thawing Sub-arctic Permafrost: Effects on Vegetation and Methane Emissions.” Geophysical Research Letters 31 (2004): L04501.

Davidson, Eric A., and Ivan A. Janssens. “Temperature Sensitivity of Soil Carbon Decomposition and Feedbacks to Climate Change.” Nature 440 (2006): 165-173.

French, Hugh M. “Past and Present Permafrost as an Indicator of Climate Change.” Polar Research 18 (1999): 269-274.

Stokstad, Erik. “Defrosting the Carbon Freezer of the North.” Science 304 (2004): 1618-1620.

Walker, Gabrielle. “A World Melting from the Top Down.” Nature 446 (2007): 718-721.

Zimov, Sergey A., et al. “Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget.” Science 312 (2006): 1612-1613.

Web Sites

Britt, Robert Roy. “Ground Frozen Since Ice Age Thaws and Collapses.” LiveScience, December 20, 2005. <http://www.livescience.com/environment/051220_permafrost.html> (accessed November 5, 2007).

Perkins, Sid. “Not-So-Perma Frost: Warming Climate Is Taking its Toll on Subterranean Ice.” Science News 171 (2007): 154. <http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20070310/bob10.asp> (accessed November 5, 2007).

Romanovsky, Vladmir E. “How Rapidly Is Permafrost Changing and What are the Impacts of those Changes?” NOAA: Arctic Theme Page. <http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/essay_romanovsky.html> (accessed November 5, 2007).

Sarah Gilman

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Permafrost

Permafrost

Permafrost is any ground, either of rock or soil , which is perennially frozen. Continuous permafrost refers to areas which have a continuous layer of permafrost. Discontinuous permafrost occurs in patches. It is believed that continuous permafrost covers approximately 4% of the earth's surface and can be as deep as 3,281 ft (1,000 m), though normally it is much less. Permafrost tends to occur when the mean annual air temperature is less than the freezing point of water. Permafrost regions are characterized by a seasonal thawing and freezing of a surface layer known as the active layer which is typically 310 ft (13 m) thick.

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Permafrost

Permafrost

Geologists define permafrost as soil layers or rock and soil combinations that remain frozen (i.e., remain below the specific freezing temperature unique to the exact constituents of the formation) for a time period in excess of two years. The exact composition of permafrost can vary widely depending on the unique geology and morphology of the area in which the perafrost forms. Although ice is usually a component of permafrost (e.g., ranging from 5% to 35% of the composition), contrary to popular assumptions, permafrost may contain few water ice crystals.

About 20% of Earth's surface is covered by permafrost. Permafrost occurs at high latitudes, or at very high altitudes, anywhere the mean annual soil temperature is below freezing. About half of Canada and Russia, much of northern China, most of Greenland and Alaska, and probably all of Antarctica are underlain by permafrost. Areas underlain by permafrost are classified as belonging to either the continuous zone or the discontinuous zone. Permafrost occurs everywhere within the continuous zone, except under large bodies of water, and underlies the discontinuous zone in irregular zones of varying size. Fairbanks, Alaska, lies within the discontinuous zone, while Greenland is in the continuous zone.

The surface layer of soil in a permafrost zone may thaw during the warmer months, and the upper layer of the frozen zone is known as the permafrost table. Like the water table, it may rise and fall according to environmental conditions. When the surface layer thaws, it often becomes waterlogged because the meltwater can only permeate slowly, or not at all, into the frozen layer below. Partial melting coupled with irregular drainage leads to the creation of hummocky topography. Walking on permafrost is extremely difficult, because the surface is spongy, irregular, and often wet. Waterlogging of the surface layer also causes slopes in permafrost areas to be unstable and prone to failure.

Permafrost provides a stable base for construction only if the ground remains frozen. Unfortunately, construction often warms the ground, thawing the upper layers. Special care must be taken when building in permafrost regions, and structures are often elevated above the land surface on stilts. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, along much of its length, is elevated on artificially cooled posts, and communities in permafrost regions often must place pipes and wires in above-ground conduits rather than burying them. Even roads can contribute to warming and thawing of permafrost, and are generally built atop a thick bed of gravel and dirt.

In addition developing special techniques to assure the stability of structures built in permafrost areas, a number of scientific studies are currently centered on understanding potential relationships between carbon trapping and release associated with permafrost formation and melting to long-term global warming and cooling cycles.

See also Geochemistry; Geologic time; Global climate; Soil conservation; Tundra.

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