Vignette 3.1 Living with Permafrost

“Permafrost” is perennially frozen soil and subsoil material that exists in climates below a certain temperature threshold. Usually it is found everywhere in tundra (ET) and subarctic (Dfc) climates. In North America, it is found in much of northern Canada and Alaska. In Russia, it occupies an astonishing two-thirds of the territory, primarily in the north and in central and eastern Siberia, where it extends all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Chinese border near Chita. Isolated patches of it occur in many Siberian mountain ranges as far south and west as the Altay. The permafrost may extend hundreds of meters below the surface. The top layer of about 30–50 cm thaws in summer, turning the previously solid surface into liquid mud.

Russian scientists and engineers pioneered many studies of the permafrost. They also had to come up with ways of living with it. For example, houses in all northern Siberian towns have to be built on pylons above the ground, so that their undersides do not melt the permafrost. Oil and gas pipelines likewise must be propped up and suspended above ground. Roads and railroads crack and dip in summer, and must be frequently repaired. Even trees are affected: So-called drunken forests of larch cover much of Siberia, where permafrost conditions uproot the shallow roots of the trees and make them lean at odd angles.

Some spectacular paleontological finds have been made in the Siberian permafrost. Thousands of kilograms of mammoth bones were brought to world markets from Siberia in the 19th century. This “Russian ivory” was sold all over Europe. Some well-preserved remains of mammoths and other large wildlife are occasionally found along the big Siberian rivers, where they simply come to the surface from the lenses of ice and are exposed by the riparian erosion processes. In October 2007, the carcass of a female mammoth infant, nicknamed “Lyuba,” was discovered on the Yamal Peninsula. She lived about 37,000 years ago and was about 1 year old when she died. The entire carcass was preserved, including eyes, trunk, and fur. In fact, for years now the possibility of extracting mammoths' DNA and cloning these animals has been discussed. Who knows, perhaps a Pleistocene Park may be possible in the near future, if not a Jurassic Park? Pending the arrival of the mammoth clones, S. Zimov of Magadan Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is working on creating a prototype wildlife park near the lower reaches of the Lena River, where all existing Siberian megafauna (musk oxen, bison, camels, horses, reindeer, saiga antelopes, bears, etc.) will be represented.