Stories of permafrost

by Hanna Oosterveen

“If something is permanently frozen, is it alive or dead?”

After emerging from a deep dive into the terrific world of thawing permafrost, typically defined as “ground (soil or rock and included ice or organic material) that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years” to use a low-hanging definition from The International Permafrost Association, I scribbled that question in one of my notebooks. From its intertwining tales of the microbes and viruses coming back to life to its role in provoking tsunamis in Greenland, permafrost is evidently teeming with life and in perpetual motion. 

The contradiction that a world framed as functionally dead — or permanently frozen — is so ‘alive’ feels worth unpacking. As permafrost bubbles, erupts and collapses, it influences the trajectories of humans and non-humans on it, in it, and around the globe. Permafrost is far from dead and also far from permanently frozen. So, then, what is permafrost?

When I ventured into the socio-cultural history of the term permafrost, I did not anticipate stepping into the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and North American military expansion. In her book, The Life of Permafrost: A History of Frozen Earth in Russian and Soviet Science, Pey-Yi Chu begins by sharing the story of geologist Inna Poiré. Chu’s account of Poiré’s early life in the Russian Empire, her career as a senior geologist in the Leningrad Geological-Hydrological-Geodesic Trust, and her eventual journey to the United States to work for the United States Geological Survey is fascinating. Poiré’s steps followed and moulded the Soviet term vechnaia merzlota and its English translation, permafrost. Through telling her story, Chu brings many, often contesting, ontologies of permafrost to life.

To unpack the development of the term permafrost, it is necessary to first look at the backstory of Russian and subsequently Soviet understandings of frozen ground. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, conceptions of frozen ground developed and sparred in both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Faced with large-scale construction challenges between the Arctic and the Amur, some researchers preferred the interpretation of frozen ground as an aggregate material structure to be grappled with. 

Meanwhile, a view of frozen ground which embraces its enmeshment with exchanges of matter and energy also flourished in the Russian Empire and then in the Soviet Union up until Stalinism in the 1930s. In the 19th-century Russian Empire, Humboldtian science, which posits the interconnectedness of phenomena and the natural laws explaining interactions, was influential. Later in the century, Russian soil scientist Vasily Dokuvhaev advanced the idea that soil has a complex relationship with surrounding environmental factors, including the climate, geology, flora, and fauna. 

In 1917, under Lenin’s Bolshevik government, Marxism-Leninism became the official state ideology. Intertwined with Marxism-Leninism is dialectical materialism which, when applied to ecology, means that natural phenomena develop through the conflict and synthesis of contradictions. Therefore, a dialectic materialist conception of frozen ground embraced its interconnectedness with other forces. However, with the Stalinist period in the 1930s, rapid, state-driven industrialisation crowded out systems-thinking approaches to frozen ground. 

Under Stalinism, research had to help the regime’s economy and defence. Moreover, Stalinist media pushed a dualistic interpretation of the relationship between humans and ‘nature’, framing frozen ground as an obstacle to be conquered. It was during this time that Mikhail Sumgin, a Soviet scientist, coined the term vechnaia merzlotavechnaia translating to ‘eternal’ and merzlota being an ambiguous term sometimes interpreted as a state, like being cold, or a material, such as cryophilic rocks. 

Technically, vechnaia merzlota was defined as ground that remained below freezing for at least two consecutive years — a largely arbitrary definition that has persisted to this day in its translation to permafrost.  Both vechnaia merzlota and permafrost connote permanence, making the technical definition which requires ground remains frozen a mere two years to fit into the definition is curious. The terms paired with their definition hide the power structures and aims embedded in them. 

At the time, the term’s adversaries mostly pointed to the word vechnaia, contesting the assumption of continuity and asserting that frozen ground is connected to the planet’s thermal system and, therefore, changeable. However, the term fit the Soviet Union’s political project — engaging with frozen ground as an aggregate material structure with a technical definition helped engineers confront the challenges of building on frozen ground, which advanced the colonisation and development of the Soviet Union’s peripheries. Evidently, conceptions of frozen ground embodied several, often exclusive ontologies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, reflecting the role of social, cultural, and political forces in shaping science and human relationships with the non-human. What is also clear is how influential the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were in developing conceptions of frozen ground.

A few years before the dawn of the Cold War, the United States supported extensive translations of Soviet scientific articles, including those on vechnaia merzlota. Vechnaia merzlota was translated to permanently frozen ground or permafrost for short in a publication of the Office of the Chief of Engineers of the United States Department of War. Permafrost suffered from similar drawbacks as the Russian term. The use of the word permanent rather than eternal carried even more connotations of fixity, while frozen ground or frost was less flexible than merzlota, limiting interpretations to those deeming it an aggregate material structure. 

However, because of these weaknesses, the literal interpretation of permafrost helped American and Canadian Cold War political projects as the nations constructed military bases and extracted resources in Alaska and across the Canadian Arctic. Therefore, research on frozen ground in the mid-20th century in North America institutionalised the concept of permafrost as a permanent aggregate material structure, despite pushback from many scientists, including Inna Poiré. Due to the hegemonic position of the English language, the translation of vechnaia merzlota to permafrost transformed frozen ground into a scientific and environmental object around the globe.

When we hear of permafrost, it’s usually in the context of greenhouse gas release and climate tipping points. Warming permafrost brings cryogenically frozen microbes ‘back to life’, which then feed on thawing organic matter, releasing immense amounts of greenhouse gases. While permafrost has thawed in the past, climate change is accelerating the warming beyond previously recorded rates. The plants that can now grow on the thicker active layer of topsoil cannot compensate for the immense amounts of carbon released from the thawing permafrost. 

As greenhouse gases are released from the thawing permafrost, they also contribute to climate change, creating an irreversible positive feedback loop. Meanwhile, mitigation techniques are almost non-existent, although significant research is going into cloning the woolly mammoth to compact Arctic soils and protect the permafrost beneath it. Regardless what a relational analysis of this option might show, clearly thawing permafrost has far-reaching impacts that are bound to accelerate.

Greenhouse gas release is only one symptom of thawing permafrost, most of which are felt locally. Before laying out the local impacts of thawing permafrost, it is worth exploring how the definition of permafrost as perennially frozen ground abstracts the interconnectedness of permafrost with earth systems and the impacts of this abstraction. In The Life of Permafrost, Chu shows how framing permafrost as a permanently frozen structure, detached from earth systems, creates illusions that it can be ‘mastered’. 

The simplified view that frozen ground can be fully understood in isolation from the earth system helps advance engineering breakthroughs which enable construction on frozen earth. She historicizes this idea, showing the connection between the ‘mastery’ of frozen ground and construction on frozen earth by the Russian Empire in the 1890s, followed by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and the United States by way of Canada in the 1940s. In each context, Arctic industrialisation intertwines with colonisation and resource extraction in different, albeit sometimes similar ways. For this analysis, we’ll focus on the so-called Canadian Arctic.

Inuit Nunaat is the name of the four Inuit homelands that stretch the circumpolar Arctic from Chukotka to Greenland. Arctic Canada is Inuit Nunangat. The Inuit have lived in Inuit Nunangat for roughly 5,000 years. Like any society, they had complex political, social, and economic systems and rich cultures which persist to this day despite efforts by the Canadian state. With Euro-American colonisation and their quest to accumulate geopolitical power and capital, many of these systems were violently eroded through the spread of diseases, forced assimilation, residential schools, resettlement, and the destruction of livelihoods, to name only some colonial campaigns. Many of the Canadian state’s efforts to secure sovereignty in Inuit Nunangat and extract the bountiful resources in the north required building infrastructure on frozen ground. 

Investment into engineering in Arctic environments picked up speed during World War II as the US army built strategic military defences across the Arctic frontier. There was the Northwest Staging route, a series of airfields from Montana to Alaska, which passed through the Inuit Nunangat. The airfields even helped serve the Lend-Lease Act, an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to supply military aircraft to fight Hitler’s regime. To strengthen Alaskan military defence, the governments also built the Alaska-Canadian Highway, which connected the United States mainland to Alaska via Canada. Covering almost 900 kilometres between the Northwest Territories and Yukon, they also built the Canol pipeline to deliver oil to bases in Alaska. 

These projects, alongside mine construction, solidified the Canadian state’s claim over Inuit Nunangat, not only as a message to other nation-states but by institutionalising the theft of Indigenous land. Moreover, the projects disrupted Inuit communities and non-humans like caribou, muskox, Arctic char, and Arctic fox, as well as peatlands as their migration routes and food sources were compromised, or they were drudged up. The engineering feats that made this infrastructure development possible on frozen ground also enabled the development of more mine projects in Inuit Nunangat, which appears to take off after World War II. 

Today, states are negotiating claims for offshore Arctic petroleum reserves and biotechnology companies are scouting out new frontiers as ancient microbes unearth from thawing permafrost, creating a new turn in Arctic colonialisms. At this point in the story, it is interesting to imagine whether military, mining, and petroleum extraction infrastructure would have been as prolific if the debate on the permanence of permafrost had not been quelled.

Today, the impacts of these projects are compounding as the permafrost on which they sit or are embedded thaws. As part of sovereignty claims and industrialisation of the Arctic, especially after World War II and with varying degrees of force from the Canadian state, largely nomadic Inuit communities were forced to settle in often coastal communities located on continuous permafrost. In one of the state’s most overt campaigns, they forcefully relocated 92 Inuit to the high-Arctic during the Cold War to assert Canadian sovereignty under false advertisements of abundant resources.

I spent the summer of 2022 in Tasiujaq, Nunavik living in the recently constructed school principal’s residence on the edge of town. The residence stood out from other buildings in the village which were a bit older for the most part, raised on steel stilts and cinderblocks overtop a layer of gravel to guard against warping from thawing permafrost. 

Sitting on the edge of the cluster of homes that make up the village’s core, the open-air waste dump, filled with scraps of treated wood, caribou hides, and various car parts, is affectionately known as “Home Depot”. A perpetual stream of smoke billows from some part of the dump that’s on fire. When the town was designed, permafrost was considered permanent. Now that it is thawing, toxins from the waste site permeate the protective membrane and contaminate groundwater and soil in the village. The same goes for the open-air sewage system a little further from the edge of town, beside the cemetery. Mounting evidence also shows that thawing permafrost increases soil and groundwater contamination from surrounding mines. 

The village of just over 400 people is renowned for being one of the most resource-rich villages in Nunavik, with plenty of caribou, muskox, black bear, Arctic char, trout, beluga, and seal in the region. However, toxins in the soil and groundwater are bioaccumulating in the game. There are now advisories from the state to limit the consumption of certain country foods. Meanwhile, hunting and fishing are central to Inuit culture, society, and sovereignty.  

To quote Kyle Whyte, the impacts of climate change “…is a recent episode of a cyclical history of colonialism inflicting anthropogenic (human-caused) environmental change on Indigenous peoples”. Moreover, the homes families were forced to move into are at risk of sinking as thawing permafrost warps the ground, creating the possibility that the village will relocate again, as is happening further north in Salluit, Nunavik. As Inuit author and cultural commentator Zebedee Nungak put it, this is colonialism on steroids.

The impacts of thawing permafrost extend far beyond Inuit Nunangat. In June 2017, a 100-meter-high tsunami hit Nuugaatsiaq, West Greenland, displacing 100 residents and killing four, after a slab of mountainside collapsed into the bay. The collapse was partially caused by thawing permafrost, which helped trigger the slide. A much larger landslide is looming in the region as permafrost thaw erodes a mountainside ten times larger. This time, the waves are projected to destroy three villages and impact two others. 

In the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, thawing permafrost contributes to vegetation destruction, water quality issues, and geohazards, including landslides. On top of this, these changes deter tourism in the region, disrupting local livelihoods. On the Yamal peninsula in Northwest Siberia in 2016, permafrost thaw activated once-frozen anthrax spores, killing thousands of reindeer, leading to the hospitalisation of dozens of people, and killing a 12-year-old boy. In 2017 in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, The Global Seed Vault, designed to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply for eternity, was breached, sending meltwater into the tunnel. The vault was built into the permafrost. In the words of a Norwegian government official, “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.”

At the end of writing this piece, I am even further away from an answer to my earlier question, what is permafrost? What is clear though is that the ways that we conceive of permafrost impact how we live on and with frozen environments. Also, there isn’t one answer. Rather than search for a convenient definition, we can ask: How do the beings living with permafrost understand permafrost? What do stories from frozen environments tell us about conceptions of permafrost? What are the similarities and differences between these stories? What are the implications of thinking about permafrost differently? 

Relegating dominant framings of permafrost is not a silver bullet solution, but it could help to open up discussions around the implications of the stories we tell. The narrative that permafrost is a material structure separate from earth systems served some purposes but has also led to catastrophe and injustice. It is time to center the voices of people living with permafrost, symmetrically embracing the plurality of perspectives.

Hanna Oosterveen is a Master’s student in the Human Ecology – Culture, Power, and Sustainability program at Lund University.