Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is soil, sediment, or rock that remains at or below 0°C for at least two years. It occurs both on land and beneath offshore Arctic continental shelves, and its thickness ranges from less than 1 meter to greater than 1,000 meters. Seasonally frozen ground is near-surface soil that freezes for more than 15 days per year. Intermittently frozen ground is near-surface soil that freezes from one to 15 days per year. Ice is not always present, as may be in the case of nonporous bedrock, but it frequently occurs and it may be in amounts exceeding the potential hydraulic saturation of the ground material. Most permafrost is located in high latitudes (i.e. land in close proximity to the North and South poles), but alpine permafrost may exist at high altitudes in much lower latitudes.
The extent of permafrost can vary as the climate changes. Today, a considerable area of the Arctic is covered by permafrost (including discontinuous permafrost). Overlying permafrost is a thin active layer that seasonally thaws during the summer. Plant life can be supported only within the active layer since growth can occur only in soil that is fully thawed for some part of the year. Thickness of the active layer varies by year and location, but is typically 0.6–4 m (2 to 12 feet) thick. In areas of continuous permafrost and harsh winters the depth of the permafrost can be as much as 1493 m (4510 ft) in the northern Lena and Yana River basins in Siberia. Permafrost can also be a storage of carbon. One estimate is that 1700 Gt of carbon are stored within the permafrost worldwide.
Continuous and discontinuous permafrost
Permafrost will typically form in any climate where the mean annual air temperature is less than the freezing point of water. Exceptions are found in moist-wintered forest climates, such as in Northern Scandinavia and North-Eastern Russia west of the Urals, where snow acts as an insulating blanket. The bottoms of glaciers can also be free of permafrost, although this is not common.
Typically, the below-ground temperature will be less variable from season to season than the air temperature, with temperatures tending to increase with depth. Thus, if the mean annual air temperature is only slightly below 0 °C (32 °F), permafrost will form only in spots that are sheltered — usually with a northerly aspect. This creates what is known as discontinuous permafrost. Usually, permafrost will remain discontinuous in a climate where the mean annual soil surface temperature is between −5 and 0 °C (23 to 32 °F). In the moist-wintered areas mentioned before, there may not be even discontinuous permafrost down to −2 °C. Discontinuous permafrost is often further divided into extensive discontinuous permafrost, where permafrost covers between 50 and 90 percent of the landscape and is usually found in areas with mean annual temperatures between −2˚ and −4˚C (28˚ and 25˚ F), and sporadic permafrost, where permafrost cover is less than 50 percent of the landscape and typically occurs at mean annual temperatures between 0˚ and −2˚C (32˚ and 28˚F).
There are exceptions in un-glaciated Siberia and Alaska where the present depth of permafrost is a relic of climatic conditions during glacial ages where winters were up to 11 °C (20 °F) colder than those of today. At mean annual soil surface temperatures below −5 °C (23 °F) the influence of aspect can never be sufficient to thaw permafrost and a zone of continuous permafrost (abbreviated to CPZ) forms. There are also “fossil” cold anomalies in the Geothermal gradient in areas where deep permafrost developed during the Pleistocene that still persists down to several hundred metres. The Suwałki cold anomaly in Poland led to the recognition that similar thermal disturbances related to Pleistocene-Holocene climatic changes are recorded in boreholes throughout Poland.
A line of continuous permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere (Frozen Ground 28, 2004, p5) is formed from the most northerly points at which permafrost sometimes thaws or is interrupted by regions without permafrost. North of this line all land is covered by permafrost or glacial ice. The “line” of continuous permafrost lies further north at some longitudes than others and can gradually move northward or southward due to regional climatic changes. In the southern hemisphere, most of the equivalent line would fall within the Southern Ocean if there were land there. Most of the Antarctic continent is overlain by glaciers.
In the Andes at Atacama Desert permafrost extends down to an altitude of 4,400 metres and is continuous above 5,600 metres.