The Far North:
A Geographic Perspective on Permafrost Environments
Frederick E. Nelson
Kenneth M. Hinkel
The influence of permafrost, defined as any subsurface earth material remaining below the freezing point of water for two or more years (Associate Committee on Geotechnical Research, 1988), is interwoven closely with the surface characteristics, biotic environment, and human infrastructure of Alaska and the northern reaches of Canada. Permafrost is a unifying concept between those branches of natural science and engineering concerned with the continental sections of the high latitudes. The frozen condition of the subsurface affects many aspects of the North's physical geography, but the local characteristics of permafrost are also heavily dependent on myriad influences and can be affected profoundly by changes in the natural or built environment.
The literature on permafrost and periglacial geomorphology of North America is vast and extends over a period of more than a century. In this brief review, we illustrate some important permafrost-induced phenomena, stressing results from recent studies. We place special emphasis on those aspects of permafrost science that have facilitated recent progress in understanding the geographic distribution of various phenomena, an important goal of climate-change science that has reinvigorated much of physical geography. The recent emphasis on spatially oriented permafrost research has been facilitated by the intersection of three factors: (1) the development of geographic information systems (GIS) technology; (2) the issues raised in global-change research; and (3) recent recognition of the importance of preservation and access to data (Clark and Barry, 1998), as well as expectations by funding agencies in this regard.
Useful regional accounts of the physiography and Quaternary history of Alaska were provided by Wahrhaftig (1965), Péwé (1975), and the volumes edited by Wright (1983) and Wright and Porter (1983). For northern Canada, comprehensive overviews were provided by Bird (1967), Bostock (1970), Trenhaile (1998), and the edited volume by French and Slaymaker (1993). A landform atlas of Canada (Mollard, 1996) includes a large number of air photographs of typical permafrost features. Carter et al. (1987) provided an excellent review of permafrost geomorphology in lowland areas of the North American Arctic. Recent systematic treatments of permafrost-related phenomena, with many North American examples, include those of Washburn (1980), Andersland and Ladanyi (1994), and French (1996). Articles contained in the Proceedings of the seven International Permafrost Conferences held to date contain a wealth of detailed information on specific aspects of frozen-ground conditions in North America.