Uncommon Ground: The (Re)Invention of Permafrost

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.



2 thoughts on “Uncommon Ground: The (Re)Invention of Permafrost

  1. Pey-Yi says:

    Hello Andrew,

    I’m glad to have found your blog! Thanks for this fascinating post. It’s exciting to learn about your project, and many of the ideas you’ve set forth here resonated with me. A few thoughts:

    1. It’s probably not entirely accurate to suggest that permafrost was “invented” in the 1940s. It’s true that the English neologism “permafrost” was coined at that time, but the concept and definition of the phenomenon as ground that sustains a temperature of less than 0 degrees Celsius for two years or more actually has Soviet origins. (This definition, still used today, was officially adopted in the USSR in 1931). The word “permafrost” itself is shortened from the expression “permanently frozen ground,” itself derived from the Russian “vechnaia merzlota,” or “eternally frozen earth.” It was introduced by Siemon Muller, an American geologist who knew Russian.

    So, the concept of permafrost has a longer history than the North American story would lead one to believe. North American scientists and engineers got it from somewhere. The story goes back not only to the Soviet Union during the 1930s but European natural history and the Russian colonization of Siberia in the 19th century. I’m writing a book about this, so if I can provide you with background information for your chapter, let me know!

    2. The idea of a “shift” in the rhetoric about permafrost in the US/Canadian context is fascinating to me. I wonder, though, to what degree permafrost was actually “reinvented” or “transformed” from an engineering problem to something fragile. For example, for Soviet scientists and engineers in the 1930s, permafrost was both these things at the same time. It was clear to them that permafrost affected human operations _and_ that human operations affected permafrost. This is why they ended up often trying to “preserve” the permafrost– not for reasons of conservation, but purely pragmatic ones: to prevent permafrost thawing from destabilizing their structures. Is it possible your American/Canadian engineers were also aware of these dual characteristics of permafrost? (If they were not, that is even more interesting!)

    3. The changes that you chart in perceptions about the Arctic landscape more generally seems like an exciting thread to pursue. It reminds me of stuff that Stephen Bocking has written about (especially his article, “Science and Spaces in the Northern Environment”). It would be really interesting to see exactly how interactions between local and national/international voices influenced these changes.

    Finally, “Empires on Ice”- what a sonorous title!

    Good luck,

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