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Physical Geography of Northern Eurasia

Permafrost

<<< Wetlands | Physical Geography Index | Distribution, Geothermal Regime, and Thickness of Permafrost >>>

Introduction

Permafrost, perennially frozen ground, occupies over 11 million km2 or 65 per cent of Russian territory (Baranov, 1959). The permafrost zone (cryolithozone) extends from the Arctic islands and the Arctic coast at 80-82°N across the continent to the Mongolian border at 49°N in Transbaikalia. The Arctic shelf is occupied by subsea permafrost (Kudryavtsev et al., 1978; French, 1996). The distribution of permafrost in the mountains varies with altitude, latitude and longitude (Baranov, 1959). In the uplands of Central and Eastern Siberia permafrost forms a continuous zone (Geocryology of the USSR: Eastern Siberia and the Far East, 1989). In the Urals, the lower permafrost limit rises progressively southwards: at 68°N it occurs at approximately 400 m above mean sea level, while at 58°N it occurs at approximately 800 m (Geocryology of the USSR: European Territory of the USSR, 1989). In the mountains of southern Russia, the altitudinal limit of permafrost varies between 600 m and 1200 m in the Sayan mountains, 1400-2000 m in the Altai mountains, and 2700-2900 m in the Caucasus (Geocryology of the USSR: Southern Mountains of the USSR, 1989). In Kamchatka and the Far East, frozen ground is found on the volcanic summits at 1000-1500 m, while in the mountains of Sakhalin and in the Sikhote-Alin mountains isolated patches of frozen ground occur at 1400-1500 m (Geocryology of the USSR: Eastern Siberia and the Far East, 1989). The thickest known permafrost exists in the north-east of the Central Siberian plateau where it reaches a depth of 1470 m (Geocryology of the USSR: Central Siberia, 1989).

Russian scientists have a long tradition in permafrost studies (geocryology). The earliest information on the perennial frozen ground of Russia dates back to the beginning of the 16th century. In the 18th century, a prominent Russian geographer Tatyshev wrote about the frozen ground of Siberia and remains of mammoth preserved within it (Kachurin, 1974). A century later, between 1820 and 1890, ground ice of the Yenisey, Lena and Yana valleys and at the Novosibirskie islands was studied by Figurin, Lopatin, Bunge, and Toll (Kachurin, 1974). In the 1840s, von Middendorf studied the temperature regime of Shergin's Well, a 116 m deep shaft, near Yakutsk and discovered that the temperature of permafrost increased with depth and that seasonal variations in temperature did not extend lower than 20 m (Shvetsov, 1959). The development of settlements in Siberia promoted extensive research in permafrost and in the 1890s Vild and Jachevsky attempted to map the extent of permafrost in Russia (Baranov, 1959). The construction of the Amur railway gave an impetus to active research in ground temperatures, seasonal freezing and thawing (by Koloskov), relationships between climate and permafrost (by Voeikov and Jachevsky), and between ground water and permafrost (by Podiakonov). Engineering aspects of construction and water supply in various regions of the cryolithozone were studied by Jachevsky and Lvov. In 1937, Sumgin published his classic monograph Permafrost in the USSR which marked the beginning of the development of geocryology as an academic discipline. In 1930, the first research unit, the Commission for Permafrost Research of the USSR Academy of Science, was founded and was later developed into the Permafrost Institute stationed originally in Moscow and since 1961 in Yakutsk. The vast permafrost regions of Northern Eurasia are extremely rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas in Western Siberia, coal in the European north-east and Siberia, non-ferrous metals in the Taymyr peninsula, gold in north-eastern Siberia, and diamonds in Sakha-Yakutia. The prospecting and mining of mineral deposits, and construction of roads and railways (particularly, the building of the Baikal-Amur railway) promoted the development of geocryology in the 20th century. Classic monographs include those by Sumgin et al. (1940), Dostovalov and Kudryashov (1967), and Popov (1967). At present, the major permafrost research centres are the Permafrost Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in Yakutsk, the National Permafrost Committee of the Russian Academy of Science, and Moscow State University (the Department of Cryolithology and Glaciology in the Geographical Faculty and the Department of Geocryology in the Geological Faculty). Their research focuses on principles of permafrost formation and evolution, regional studies and mapping of permafrost, engineering aspects of permafrost, and human impacts on cryogenic landscapes.

The development of geocryology has introduced a variety of new scientific terms and concepts. The following publications provide useful guidance: Brown and Kupsch (1974), Kudryavtsev et al. (1978a), Washburn (1979), Popov et al. (1985), ACGR (1988), and French (1996). Many publications deal with the regional aspects of geocryology. Regional Cryolithology (1989) provides a short description of the permafrost regions of Northern Eurasia and The Geocryology of the USSR (1988, 1989) holds a wealth of information on the permafrost zone.

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