Few doubt that some Arctic terrain is frozen. Yet from this apparent consensus, dramatically different understandings of what the land is have been born over time.
The word “permafrost” was coined in the 1940s, when U.S. and Canadian engineers took the lead on war-time construction efforts in the subarctic and Arctic. Literally and figuratively breaking ground, they translated experiences along the CANOL pipeline and the Alaska highway into pioneering research on northern landscapes.
The invention of permafrost during World War II was no historical accident. Previous researchers deemed the tundra a frozen wasteland void of value (think “Barren lands”). After introducing reindeer industries to Alaska and the Mackenzie Delta in the 1920s, bureaucrats changed this thinking, envisioning fruitful pastures up North. Yet when national defense was at stake, the Arctic land—and what was under it—became an engineering problem needing a new name.
Engineers dominated the literature on permafrost between 1939 and 1960. Researchers bemoaned the effects of thawing and slumping on structural integrity, confronted the challenge of delivering sewage and water through frozen earth, and mapped regions with gravel deposits. Meanwhile, scientific communities gathered around the permafrost “issue” through annual conferences and professional societies. It is little coincidence that this period witnessed the construction of DEW line sites, northern airfields, Inuvik, and the beginning of seismic exploration.
History and science are fickle, so notions of the Arctic terrain did not stay stable. Ironically, the very avenues by which “permafrost” was invented led to its reinvention in the 1960s. Extensive seismic blasting in the North opened swaths of tundra. These lines, still visible from the air today, were used by some northeners to access hunting and trapping areas. In time, they observed the impacts oil exploration had on the land. Rock debris dammed creeks, resulting in fewer fish in fall. Seismic lines disrupted animal habitat and migration patterns. Northerners, not visiting scientists, voiced these concerns first, through radio programs, town meetings, and the Carrothers Commission.
Soon, permafrost was transformed. Teaming with local residents, scientists defined the Arctic landscape as a sensitive ecosystem, one which healed slowly from the scars of development. This language, like that from the World War II era, was a sign of the times. Civil rights and environmental movements percolated around North America, reaching a boil in the North in the early 1970s. The orientation of permafrost research shifted from “How does permafrost affect human operations?” to “How do human operations affect permafrost?”
The invention and reinvention of permafrost makes visible some of the ways science, development, and environmental change are related in Arctic history. I’m still working out my thoughts on permafrost in the middle twentieth century, and will eventually refine these in a chapter of my dissertation.