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 human-generated 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. In the 21st cent., as the effects of global warming have become particularly strong in the Arctic, permafrost has thawed and destabilized, resulting in dramatically altered landscapes in some areas.
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