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date: 25 April 2019

Permafrost-Related Geohazards in Cold Russian Regions

Summary and Keywords

Permafrost, or perennially frozen ground, and the processes linked to the water phase change in ground-pore media are sources of specific dangers to infrastructure and economic activity in cold mountainous regions. Additionally, conventional natural hazards (such as earthquakes, floods, and landslides) assume special characteristics in permafrost territories.

Permafrost hazards are created under two conditions. The first is a location with ice-bounded or water-saturated ground, in which the large amount of ice leads to potentially intensive processes of surface settlement or frost heaving. The second is linked with external, natural, and human-made disturbances that change the heat-exchange conditions. The places where ice-bounded ground meets areas that are subject to effective disturbances are the focus of hazard mapping and risk evaluation.

The fundamentals of geohazard evaluation and geohazard mapping in permafrost regions were originally developed by Gunnar Beskow, Vladimir Kudryavtsev, Troy Péwé, Oscar Ferrians, Jerry Brown, and other American, European, and Soviet authors from 1940s to the 1980s.

Modern knowledge of permafrost hazards was significantly enriched by the publication of Russian book called Permafrost Hazards, part of the six-volume series Natural Hazards in Russia (2000). The book describes, analyses, and evaluates permafrost-related hazards and includes methods for their modeling and mapping.

Simultaneous work on permafrost hazard evaluation continued in different countries with the active support of the International Permafrost Association. Prominent contributions during the new period of investigation were published by Drozdov, Clarke, Kääb, Pavlov, Koff and several other thematic groups of researchers. The importance of common international works became evident. The international project RiskNat: A Cross-Border European Project Taking into Account Permafrost-Related Hazards was developed as a new phenomenon in scientific development.

The intensive economic development in China presented new challenges for linear transportation routes and hydrologic infrastructures. A study of active fault lines and geological hazards along the Golmud–Lhasa Railway across the Tibetan plateau is a good example of the achievements by Chinese scientists.

The method for evaluating the permafrost hazards was based on survey data, monitoring data, and modeling results. The survey data reflected the current environmental conditions, and they are usually shown on a permafrost map. The monitoring data are helpful in understanding the current tendencies of permafrost evolution in different landscapes and regions. The modeling data provided a permafrost forecast that takes climate change and its impact on humans into account.

The International Conference on Permafrost in 2016, in Potsdam, Germany, demonstrated the new horizons of conventional and special permafrost mapping in offshore and continental areas. Permafrost hazards concern large and diverse aspects of human life. It is necessary to expand the approach to this problem from geology to also include geography, biology, social sciences, engineering, and other spheres of competencies in order to synthesize local and regional information. The relevance of this branch of science grows with taking into account climate change and the growing number of natural disasters.

Keywords: geohazard, geologic hazard, map, permafrost, climate change, ground ice, geocryological process, geocryological phenomenon


Permafrost, or perennially frozen ground, and the geocryological processes associated with it are sources of specific dangers to infrastructure and economic activity in cold Northern or mountainous regions. The geocryological processes are linked to the water phase change in ground-pore media. It directly affects infrastructure; everyday life; and natural resources, such as land, forests, and fresh water. Additionally, conventional natural hazards (earthquakes, erosion, floods, mudflows, landslides, rock falls, and avalanches) assume special characteristics in permafrost regions. Taking permafrost hazards into account is important because it can lead to considerable economic losses and environmental problems.

The mapping of permafrost hazards is an effective method for analyzing the spatial distribution and temporal changes that take place during geocryological phenomena, as well several factors of the hazards and how vulnerable the recipients of the hazards would be. The level of permafrost hazard depends both on the specific permafrost conditions and on climate change and its human impact simultaneously. The major source of uncertainty in permafrost-hazard assessment is the geocryological history, which determines the spatial variability of ice distribution in the ground.

History of the Question

In its current context, the term geohazards (geological hazards) includes geological processes that pose a danger to human life or negative consequences for the economy. According to the Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountains (GAPHAZ) working group, “Related disasters can kill hundreds or even thousands of people at once and cause damage with a global sum on the order of 100 million EURO annually.” The economic consequences of pure geocryological impacts in a global context have not yet been evaluated.

A hazard map shows the spatial distribution of the type and level of a specific danger. “Level” can mean magnitude; intensity or velocity, or both; extensiveness; and spatial or temporal frequency. The best-known examples are the “Earthquake hazard” and “Landslide hazard” series of maps, which have different scales.

Permafrost is ground (soil or rock) containing ice or gas hydrates that has had a temperature below 0° Centigrade for at least three consecutive years. Ground that stays frozen for only two years is called perele´tok. Permafrost is synonymous with perennially frozen ground: it is defined by temperature linked with the ephemeral–solid phase state in pore or fractured media. Ground that is below freezing but contains no ice is described as “cooled,” and it is the part of the cryolithozone (Kudryavtsev, 1978). Examples of cooled ground include rock without water and saline layers with cryopegs (saline pore water in the ground). However, permafrost should not be considered permanent because natural or human-made changes in the climate or terrain can cause the temperature of the ground to rise above freezing (van Everdingen, 1998). Permafrost includes perennial ground ice but not surface ice, such as glacier ice and land-surface ice.

Traces of old permafrost epochs can be found in four or five Precambrian, Paleozoic, and Mesozoic deposit formation series. The cryogenic Cainozoic events started 40 million years ago with the formation of Antarctic glaciation (Garagulya & Ershov, 2000). Each glaciation massif is surrounded by permafrost because of the dry, cold gravity (or katabatic) winds from the glacial areas. These form periglacial environments. A consistent global or regional decrease in air temperature or increase in the climate’s continentality, or both, leads to permafrost aggradation. The last expansion of the permafrost took place 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. Ice-wedge casts in the ground indicate these areas in Germany, Poland, and Ukraine. In some territories in Siberia, the permafrost thickness reaches 2,000 meters. The modern Russian arctic shelf was in subaerial conditions during this period.

The main approaches to geohazards mapping in permafrost regions were originally developed by Beskow (1947); Kudryavtsev (1954); Péwé (1954, 1969, 1971, 1982); Ferrians (1965); Ferrians et al. (1969); Ferrians and Hobson (1973); Brown, Rickard, and Vietor (1969); Corte (1969); Swinzow (1969); Weeks (1969); Lachenbruch (1970); Kaplar (1970); Knight (1971); Price (1972); Furrer and Fitze (1973); Brown (1973); Washburn (1973); Kachadoorian and Ferrians (1973); McVee (1973); McRoberts and Morgenstern (1974); Johnson (1975); French (1976); Gorbunov (1978); Haeberli (1978); Lawson and Brown (1978); Popov, Rozenbaum, and Vostokova (1978); Brown, (1998); and Smith and Burgess (1998). Most of these authors concentrated on the experiences in natural-environment investigations. L. Khrustalev (1971) applied principles of large-scale permafrost mapping to densely urban, built-up areas.

Péwé (1982) studied geological hazards in the Fairbanks area of Central Alaska. His work remains an outstanding example of a regional study of geological hazards. Péwé stated that “a geologic hazard is a perfectly normal geologic event, process, or conditions that become[s] a problem only when it affects man, his property or his pocketbook.” He described the processes of frost heave and thaw settlement and showed how they affect roads, buildings, pipelines, and agricultural development. He linked these processes with permafrost conditions to elaborate the principles of land use in permafrost areas. He created a permafrost map of the area that remains the most comprehensive source on permafrost conditions in Fairbanks and the surrounding areas. Péwé showed how processes and phenomena depend on permafrost conditions. Ground subsidence caused by the thawing of ice-rich permafrost and the processes of groundwater movement and water phase change (e.g., icing, pingos, and water-resource problems) are the specific permafrost phenomena that expand the list of conventional geological hazards (such as earthquakes, landslides, hillside erosion, and floods). He showed that “the most widespread geologic hazard in the Fairbanks area—and perhaps the costliest overall—is frozen ground.” He used the mapping method to show the spatial extent and heterogeneity of seasonal frost action, which can be shown in different scales. The important attributes of permafrost are spatial extent, ice content, and phenomena locations. The groundwater map is also useful in understanding the relationship between permafrost and underground water discharge.

An important step forward in the knowledge of permafrost hazards is marked by the Russian book Permasfrost Hazards, prepared by specialists of Moscow State University (Garagulya & Ershov, 2000). Part of a six-book series on natural hazards in Russia, it was collection of actual identification, modeling, and mapping approaches to localizing, describing, analyzing, and evaluating permafrost hazards. It demonstrated that permafrost hazard evaluation could be divided into natural and geotechnical branches. The natural branch contains the knowledge of cryogenic and postcryogenic phenomena and takes into account their genesis, mechanisms, associated processes, and effects in the deposits and at the microrelief. The geotechnical branch contains the knowledge of history of technogenic pression that induces the permafrost reaction.

Permafrost conditions and the phenomena distribution characteristics are the basics of special maps of natural hazards in cold regions. The authors divided the processes and phenomena into “undisturbed condition” and the processes in human-impact zones. They devoted special attention to ocean-floor permafrost conditions.

The authors distinguished between permafrost hazards that are associated with the processes of freezing and thawing, which are linked with surficial cryosphere processes (e.g., icing, glaciers, and avalanches), and natural and human-made processes in cryolithozone.

Permafrost hazards associated with freezing and thawing include frost heaving, frost cracking, polygonal-structure evolution, massive ice, thermokarst, solifluction, thaw slumps, and kurums (debris slopes). These arise in subaerial conditions and affect the evolution of the permafrost after sea transgression. Specific permafrost processes occur in a sea-floor environment (e.g., ice-mound formation, permafrost formation, and degradation from salt diffusion in poorly lithified deposits). The gas-hydrate phase change can exist within the ice-water phase change. The pattern of these phenomena depends on the historical landscape pattern formed in the previous epoch of subaerial conditions. Similarly, coastal land holds geocryological traces and the consequences of historical sea transgression that affect the peculiarities of modern permafrost hazards. Thus, the activity of the coastal thermal abrasion depends on the massive ice distribution and the salinity of the ground. Coastal erosion in the Arctic is one of most powerful of such phenomena. The mean velocity of the coastal lateral retreat is 2 to 7 meters a year, and in some places, this activity reaches 10 meters and even 100 meters a year. The effectiveness of this destruction is linked to the thermal and mechanical energy of waves and the constant exposure of frozen ground to wave action, thermal denudation (including thermal erosion), thaw slumping, thermokarst, and other processes.

The hazards associated with such surficial cryosphere processes are icing, glaciers, and avalanches. All these phenomena are evident, spectacular, and well known. Icing progresses in cold continental climate conditions in places with either intense underground water discharge or where there is locally complete freezing of a river’s streamflow. Giant icings can grow to more than 10 million square meters, and the thickness of the ice layer can grow up to 2.7 meters. This is dangerous for roads and pipeline structures. Glaciers can be dangerous because of the threat of instantaneous mass movement. For example, the hanging Kolka Glacier in the Caucasus collapsed in 2002 and triggered an avalanche of ice and debris flow, killing 125 people. It is important to note that ice and glacier movements strongly depend on permafrost conditions. The coexistence of a glacier and a volcano presents a very special kind of danger. The intense heat from an eruption leads to mudflow that moves from the melting ice. The example of such catastrophe occurred at the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia, in 1985.

The derivative hazards associated with natural and human-made processes in the cryolithozone are caused by environmental changes. Each change in the microclimate, vegetation, microrelief, surface-water regime, ground-chemical balance, or groundwater leads to environmental reactions, which can result in dangerous derivative processes. The most dramatic alternations of the natural landscape in towns increases the permafrost hazards for local structures. The integral change of the ground temperature regime in built-up areas is not a simple sum of the disturbances from individual buildings. The stark contrast between human-made landscapes is conditioned by directional temperature regime change. Thus, under a warm building, ground temperature increases; and under roads, the temperature decreases because the snow is removed after a snowfall. The strong temperature gradients provide the conditions for water migration and deformation processes.

Permafrost Hazards also describes the principles of permafrost forecasting and how to protect territories from permafrost hazards. Linear transportation structures present a special challenge for permafrost geology and engineering. The length of pipelines exposes them to a variety of terrain conditions with different reactions to climate change and the influence of human activity. Seasonal freezing and thawing processes in the ground are a source of additional tension in buried or pile-based structures, which are subject to instant or fatigued deformations. Railroads and highways also experience the impacts of frost heaving, thermal settlement, thermal cracking, and icings. There are special dangers inherent in river dams and water storage facilities. Bypass seepage near dam construction sites develops in a strong interaction with permafrost. The balance between convective heat from the migrating water and the ground reserves of cold controls the shape and stability of the talik under or near a dam. The temperature field also controls the mechanical properties of the dam’s foundation and the dam itself.

Among the environmental problems associated with permafrost hazards is the human-made pollution of groundwater. Permafrost is not a reliable low-permeability screen for different chemical substances, which can affect the frozen ground through convective heat transport and by decreasing the freezing point of the soil. A special method of “mapping the natural protection of underground water” was developed in Russia by a large team of authors in the 1970s. Besides pollution, there is the problem of hydrologic regime change in human-induced permafrost evolution. Swamping leads to the depletion of forest resources, and it is the most widespread kind of permafrost hydrology dynamic (Shur & Jorgenson, 2007)

The discussion on the fundamental possibility of regional climate and natural processes management continues. The engineering protection of a structure and the engineering protection of land from dangerous permafrost processes should be distinguished. There are three basic groups of permafrost-condition-control techniques, with three distinct aims:

  1. 1. Controlling the components of radiation balance on the surface. This means regulating the incoming radiation and albedo.

  2. 2. Controlling the components of heat balance on the surface. This means regulating surfaces’ and covers’ thermal physics properties.

  3. 3. Controlling the artificial sources or sinks of the heat balance on the surface. This means using heating elements, thermal piles, heat pumps, and so on.

Permafrost engineering has developed very actively in Russia. The monograph “Permafrost Engineering” (Khrustalev & Ershov, 1999) includes a series of technical sections that demonstrate the wide range of investigation methods classifications of permafrost areas in terms of their stability, as well as methods of economic estimates of the costs construction and support operations. The permafrost forecast is useful tool for assessing permafrost hazards using ground temperature dynamics (Kudryavtsev, 1974). There are numerous analytical methods and computer-modeling techniques for predicting changes in permafrost temperature and permafrost degradation over time in different climatic scenarios and thermal interactions of structures and permafrost. The spatial and temporal limits of the forecast are linked with natural and artificial landscape units, which develop under the influence of climate and human-induced factors of heat exchange.

The intensive economic development in China has showed new challenges in linear transport and hydrologic-infrastructure project realization. A study of active fault lines and geological hazards along the Golmud-Lhasa Railway, across the Tibetan plateau, in 2006, is a good example of the achievements by Chinese scientists (Zhenhan et al., 2001). The essential sections of this book are “Permafrost and Its Freezing–Thawing Effects,” “Geological Hazards Posed by Active Fault in the Permafrost North Tibetan Plateau,” and “Migrating Pingos and Their Hazard Effects.” The authors also discuss the interaction between permafrost processes and pipelines and underground constructions, and they take into account the vibrations caused by the railroads.

Work on the evaluation of permafrost hazards continues in different countries with the active support of the International Permafrost Association. The prominent recent contributions in this field include publications by Haeberli (1992); Drozdov (2004); Clarke et al. (2008); Kääb (2008); Pavlov (2008); and Koff, Chesnokova, Bogomolova, and Zaigrin (2009). The importance of international cooperation is evident. An international project called RiskNat: A Cross-Border European Project Taking into Account Permafrost-Related Hazards was developed as a new step in scientific development.

Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountains (GAPHAZ), a scientific working group of the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences and the International Permafrost Association (IACS/IPA) is a similar permanent international project. It is focused on the remote sensing of geohazardous areas found in rugged, high mountains (see “Geomatics and Remote Sensing. The goal is consulting and improving the international scientific communication about glacier- and permafrost-related hazards.

The latest permafrost hazard terminology was developed with International Permafrost Association participation. The Multi-language Glossary of Permafrost and Related Ground-Ice Terms (van Everdingen, 1998) provides terminology matching for 598 word units in 12 languages (Chinese, English, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish). Twenty-four illustrations help to define the terms more precisely.

The new impressive basics in the knowledge of snow- and ice-related hazards, risks, and disasters contains 20 chapters, eight of which demonstrate the role of permafrost in the natural systems of “atmosphere-land-ocean” (Haeberli & Whiteman, 2015).

Mapping the permafrost is an important step in studying permafrost hazards. In fact, all kinds of permafrost maps contain hidden information about the possible negative consequences of permafrost activity. The principles of landscape-structure-oriented permafrost mapping were developed in the 1930s by V. K. Yanovsky (Ershov, 2008). The most extensive permafrost mapping in Russia took place from 1970 to 2000 and triggered expensive development of the eastern and northern regions of the U.S.S.R. The best-known international result was “Circum-Arctic Map of Permafrost and Ground-Ice Conditions” (Brown et al., 1998). Few such maps are now being produced. A good example of permafrost map update is the new map of permafrost in Alaska, made by scientists at the Geophysical Institute Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2008.

Special maps of permafrost hazards are few, but it is possible to see the Canadian results (Roy, Benkert, Kennedy, Fortier, & Lewkowicz, 2016).

State of the Art

The Eleventh International Conference on Permafrost in 2016, in Potsdam, Germany, showcase achievements in general and specific permafrost mapping in offshore and terrestrial areas. The variety of permafrost hazards is growing, and new synthesis efforts are needed. A special session of the conference, “Hazards and Risks Related to Changing Mountain, Low-Land and Coastal Permafrost,” concentrated on actual knowledge and approaches. It was convened by Christian Huggel, Fujun Niu, and Katy Barnhart and featured various reports on environmental changes in the context of hazard and risk evaluation for different regions and types of human activity, covering various timescales, from past to present to future. The various topics covered in this session showed the importance of and study interest in different processes and structural vulnerability (see Table 1).

Table 1. Distribution of Hazard-Oriented Topics at the 2016 International Conference on Permafrost in Potsdam.



Number of Publications

Change of seasonal freezing and thawing depths

Underground pipelines






Coastal erosion (erosion and sea flooding)

Arctic coastal infrastructure, cultural, and archeological sites


Scientific and community infrastructure


Cumulative effects of infrastructure impact and/or climate change on permafrost and permafrost-related processes

All permafrost-related processes as the feedback effect (coastal erosion, thermokarst, and recent changes in thaw lake development)












Frost heave

Foundations and pavements


Urban areas


Gas-emission crater

Economic facilities


Hydrologic hazards:

  • river bank erosion

  • flood due to rock falls in the glacial lakes

  • flood due to winter icing damming



Not specified




Landslides, thaw slumps, rock falls and rock-ice avalanches

Infrastructure and inhabitants


Open pit mines


Rock glacier and frozen debris lobes

Alpine infrastructure and livelihoods


Highways and Pipelines


Rock’s cracking

Not specified


Sea ice gouging

Offshore pipelines


Thermal erosion



Thermal suffosion (including “sinkholes”)




Linear transport infrastructure


Roadways’ embankments


Railways’ embankments






Urban areas


It is not enough to describe the state of the permafrost based only on ground temperature and active layer depth. Additional characteristics from borehole and geophysical investigations should also be used, as follows:

  1. 1. The depth of seasonal temperature variations. The value of this depth decreases dramatically when the permafrost starts thawing. In some cases, the seasonal variations in temperature are linked with underground water heat influences.

  2. 2. The collection of the mean annual temperatures averaged within a group of adjacent sites that present the coldest and warmest types of terrain:

    1. a. air

    2. b. ground surface

    3. c. ground at the active layer bottom

    4. d. ground at the depth of penetration of the seasonal temperature fluctuations

  3. 3. Intervals of depths in permanently thawed ground inside a permafrost massif.

  4. 4. Intervals of depths in complete seasonal freezing and thawing of the ground.

  5. 5. Intervals of depths in partial seasonal freezing and thawing of the ground.

  6. 6. The temperature at the onset of phase transitions at the bottom of the active layer.

  7. 7. The sign and value of the geothermal gradient below the depth of the seasonal temperature fluctuations.

  8. 8. Presence of the gas-hydrate.

All these parameters could be the subject of the legends in a new generation of permafrost mapping.

It is important that the permafrost hazards are not linked with the permafrost itself but with the processes that accompany the water phase change. Each place with changing ice content or changing nonfrozen-groundwater content (or both) becomes a danger zone for permafrost. The content and characteristics of a hazard depend on geological substrate and valuable factors of relief and permafrost, such snow cover, surface-water regime, and vegetation properties. Mountain hazards are linked to permafrost by vertical climate zonality.

Thermokarst is “a composite geological process which includes thawing of ground ice and consolidation of thawing soil, resulting in deformation of soil and the soil surface, and formation of specific forms of relief in the permafrost region” (Shur & Osterkamp, 2007). Thermokarst is a widely occurring process in the permafrost region, and its relict features are well known in areas previously occupied by permafrost.

Permafrost-Related Geohazards in Cold Russian RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 1. A thermokarst lake in northern Transbaikalia (Eastern Siberia). The process activity is evident from the so-called drunken forest on the shores.

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Figure 2. Thermokarst lake in Northern Ural. The lateral expansion of the lake is linked to the thaw slumps on the lakeside.

It is not linked genetically with karst, which is associated with rock-dissolution processes. Thermokarst is a result of thawing of ice-rich soil and consolidation of thawed soil. The typical rate of thaw subsidence is from 0.05 to 0.25 meters a year. The manifestation of the thermokarst is a ratio between thermal subsidence, thawed ground consolidation, and lateral deposit accumulation. After the initial thermal subsidence, other processes following thermokarst contribute to the development of a thermokarst lake. The cyclical development in dry and humid ages leads to consecutive deepening and expansion of thermokarst depressions, called khasirey in Western Siberian and alas in Yakutia indigenous languages. The term “thaw lake” basin is widely used in the English language literature.

Thermal erosion is “an erosion of ice-bearing permafrost by the combined thermal and mechanical action of moving water” (van Everdingen, 1998). This is a sporadic, but not widely distributed, and very intensive process. Some 10-meter–deep gullies can grow in one or two days.

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Figure 3. A thermal erosion gully along the temporal road (Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 4. A thermal erosion gully along the pipeline (Bolshezemelskaya Tundra, European Nord of Russia).

The typical velocity of a gully’s vertical growth is 1 to 5 meters a day. A gully’s horizontal growth reaches 25 meters a year.

Thermal suffosion is “an internal erosion or blowout piping in thawing sandy and silty deposit” (van Everdingen, 1998). The process can remain unnoticed for some time but can suddenly lead to the formation of a crater or sinkhole at the surface.

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Figure 5. Thermal suffosion at the Bestyakh Terrace of the Lena River (Eastern Siberia).

In some conditions, the suffusion works with the tunnel erosion within the degradation of the ice wedges (Shur, Kanevskiy, Walker, Jorgenson, Buchhorn, Raynolds, et al., 2016). Sometimes, sinkholes 1 to 3 meters deep can form in just one to two hours.

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Figure 6. A suffosion sinkhole in silt-thawed deposits (Fairbanks, Alaska).

However, the typical velocity of the suffusion is not well studied.

Frost heave is “an upward or outward movement of the ground surface (or objects on, or in, the ground) caused by the formation of ice in the soil” (van Everdingen, 1998).

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Figure 7. Local heaving under large stones orients them vertically (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 8. Lateral heaving of large stones results in the formation of stone circles (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

The effect of heave can be linked with various kinds of force that occur when the ground increases in volume, the surface heaves because of the freezing of migrating water, or because of confined water injection, especially in all-around freezing conditions.

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Figure 9. The ice core of an ice mound (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 10. Frost heaving at the top of an ice mound (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

The special case of frost heave is linked with piles and other structures, which are located in the active layer zone and don’t have enough cohesion with permanently frozen ground. The frost heave of the foundations of structures leads to problems related to their integrity.

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Figure 11. Frost heaving alters an old wood pile located under asphalt pavement (Labitnangui, Western Siberia).

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Figure 12. Frost heaving alters piles on a porch (Yakutsk, Eastern Siberia).

The typical velocity of the heaving reaches 0.2 to 0.4 meters per month.

Frost heave and thermal subsidence are linked with the change of seasonal freezing and thawing depths as the cumulative effect of infrastructure impact and climate change. This depends on the groundwater and ground ice content and leads to growing damage.

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Figure 13. A house is left uneven from subsidence (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 14. Thermal subsidence on the embankment of a railroad left unused for 13 years (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

This cyclical process also favors the accumulation of fatigue wear in construction elements. Typically, maximum seasonal heaving occurs from February to April, when the active layer freezes up completely. The maximal velocity of thermal subsidence can be registered between June and July; however, the maximum total subsidence occurs in September within the maximal depth of the active layer.

A thermal-contraction crack is “a tensile fracture resulting from thermal stresses in frozen ground. Tensile stresses caused by a reduction in ground temperature are probably a major factor in thermal contraction cracking, but it is usually difficult to prove that desiccation is not also involved. Ice wedges, sand wedges, soil wedges and ice veins form in thermal contraction cracks” (van Everdingen, 1998). The thermal-contraction cracks cause major destruction to airfields and highway pavement.

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Figure 15. The crack across the road pavement (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

The optimal time for this process is early autumn, when snow cover is minimal and air temperatures can decrease by 20 degrees in several hours.

Sometimes, the cracks are linked with ice-mound growth.

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Figure 16. A crack at the top of an ice mound (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

Coastal erosion is the specific case of thermal denudation at the sea shores and river banks in permafrost areas. This process sometimes is abnormally intensive because the thaw weakens the ground and combines with wave abrasion.

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Figure 17. Coastal dynamics (thermal abrasion) on the shore of the Kara Sea.

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Figure 18. Side erosion of frozen peat with ice wedges (shown by the arrow) on the bank of the Chara River (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 19. Side erosion of frozen lacustrine deposits on the bank of the Chara River (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

Typically, the bank retreats because the coastal erosion is 3 to 5 meters per year.

The range of slope movement processes in the permafrost zone include landslides, thaw slumps, debris flows, rock falls, and rock-ice avalanches. Events include quick movements, which cause the thawed part of the ground to slide on the frozen surface. The thawed part can be solid (in the case of landslides and bloc rock falls), fluid (thaw slump and water debris flows), or dry and granular (kurums, quick movements, and screes).

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Figure 20. A thaw slump on western Olkhon Island (Baikal Lake). The deep seasonal freezing provides conditions for the thawed part of the ground to slide on the frozen surface during the early summer.

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Figure 21. A mass of debris flows around Leprindo Lake after a heavy rain shower and snowfall during an extremely warm summer (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

Rock-ice and snow avalanches occur in winter.

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Figure 22. A dry-snow avalanche destroyed railroad structures (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 23. A snow-slip bulldozed a mountain forest (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

All these movements are so quick that they are practically instantaneous.

Rock glacier and coarse debris lobes, as well as solifluction lobes, are slow but have a high potential for magnitude phenomena, which can be dangerous for infrastructure.

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Figure 24. Small rock-glacier waves on the lower part of a slope (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 25. A solifluction lobe with a landslide-stream shape (Olkhon Island, Baical Lake).

They are polygenetic, coarse debris, geological bodies that have a modern movement because of the freezing-thawing effect and changing water or ice content. The different movement mechanisms of are responsible for the slow velocity (from several centimeters to a few meters per year), but the total pressure of the stone is massive. These movement mechanisms include plastic deformations of the ice layer, creep, gravitational pouring, and sliding at the slippery bases.

Icing is “a sheet-like mass of layered ice formed on the ground surface, or on river or lake ice, by freezing of successive flows of water that may seep from the ground, flow from a spring or emerge from below river or lake ice through fractures” (van Everdingen, 1998). It’s a process that is dangerous for roads and any other structures. Sometimes, the icing body becomes a dam, blocking the river discharge and leading to significant flooding (Shur et al., 2016).

Permafrost-Related Geohazards in Cold Russian RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 26. Icing on the Nizhniy Ingamakit River (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

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Figure 27. Marks indicate the level of the ice at the kurum’s surface and on the trunks of trees (southern Yakutia).

Gas emission craters are poorly understood tundra phenomena and are hypothetically linked with gas-hydrate evolution in heterogeneous permafrost conditions (Kizyakov, Leibman, Sonyushkin, Zimin, & Khomutov, 2016). The giant dimensions of this phenomenon (10 meters in all dimensions) and its unknown sources of pressure constitute the hazard itself. However, the spatial and temporal frequency of these events are low.

Permafrost hazards required the presence of two conditions. The first is location with ice-bounded or water-saturated grounds. The large amount of ice leads to potentially intensive processes of surface settlement or frost heaving (Mackay, Konishchev, & Popov, 1979).

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Figure 28. An ice-rich lacustrine deposit (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

Permafrost-Related Geohazards in Cold Russian RegionsClick to view larger

Figure 29. Ice wedges in alluvial deposits (Chara River, northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

The second is linked with external, natural and human-made disturbances that change heat exchange conditions (Shur & Jorgenson, 2007). The places where ice-bounded grounds meet areas that are subject to effective disturbances are the focus of hazard mapping and risk evaluation.

The evaluation of permafrost hazards is based on survey data (Kudryavtsev, 1974; Kudryavtsev, Garagulya, Kondratyeva, Romanovsky, Maximova, & Tchighov, 1979), monitoring data (Biskaborn et al., 2015), and modeling results (Romanovsky et al., 2016). The survey data reflect current permafrost, engineering, and environmental conditions and are usually shown on the permafrost map. The monitoring data help in understanding the current tendencies of permafrost evolution in different landscapes and regions. The modeling data provide the basis for the permafrost forecast that takes climate change into account and its impact on humans.

The comprehensive permafrost survey should provide information on temperature and cryolithological data available from boreholes, mines, and surficial and remote observation.

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Figure 30. A horizontal mine in the permafrost with ablimation ice on the ceiling (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia). This is an important source of geocryological data.

The major result of the survey is a set of permafrost maps. It concentrates on the modern state of permafrost and the cryolithological peculiarities, which are linked with geological and climate history.

Permafrost monitoring is an important method for getting real data on the time variability and tendencies of permafrost state characteristics. The best-known and well-tested types of permafrost monitoring are geotemperature observation (the GTN-P project), active-layer-depth observation (the CALM project), and geocryological processes activity observation (the VSEGINGEO project and the GAPHAZ project).

Permafrost-state modeling uses a different scale. The most reliable is the local approach based on the data of permafrost surveying. The small-scale approach develops very actively and must show the regional and global climate-dependent dynamics of permafrost in different time scales. Unfortunately, there is not yet enough observed data to prove these modeling results.

The permafrost forecast is an important part of the hazard assessment procedure. It estimates the direction and level of permafrost condition changes under the influence of climate change and human activity. The basics of the modern view of the forecast are the described links between process activity and the ground temperature regime, which is the subject of numerical modeling or analytical estimation. The major difficulty with the permafrost forecast is the nonlinear relationship of permafrost and environmental factors. For example, the same vegetation cover can lead to ground cooling or warming effects in different circumstances. The forecast’s reliability therefore depends on detailed permafrost surveying, which must include the permafrost history investigation, ground-ice spatial distribution mapping, ground thermal physics tests, ground temperature observations, detailed landscape stratification, and other kinds of special work.

In other words, the geocryological forecast is the synthesis of thermal physics and permafrost geology (Ershov, 2008). A good example of this idea is the analysis of snow-cover insulation that leads to a heating effect on the ground temperature regime. In fact, this heating effect depends not on the snow cover’s heat resistance properties alone but on the annual heat-turnover regime in the active layer. If the value of the heat turnover is greater, then the heating effect is greater. If we consider that the heat turnover in the ground depends on the deposit content and structure, the current state of the permafrost, the amount of moisture and ice in the soil, and the structure of the radiation heat balance on the surface, then the complexity of the forecast problem becomes obvious. The existence of a mutual feedback between the heat turnover and the thickness of the active layer entails ambiguity about the influence of the same factors in different microlandscape and microclimatic conditions. Consequently, the geocryological forecast should be based on specific field data, and not on spatially averaged characteristics.

The emphasis in geocryological forecasts depends on the time scale. The short-time forecast describes a period of up to 10 years. Regional climate change and vegetation evolution are not so important in permafrost dynamics. This forecast is focused on the probability of extreme hydrological events and human disturbance of surficial heat exchange. The middle-time permafrost forecast predicts permafrost conditions for 50 to 100 years and must take into account the tendencies of climate and vegetation change as well as human activity scenarios. The long-term permafrost evolution model is important for analyzing the quaternary historical processes, including dramatic climate change, sea-level oscillations, and glacial dynamics. This retrospective modeling is important for understanding the spatial distribution of ice-bearing ground, cryolithological ground structures, gas-hydrate distribution, and the temperature state of the entire thickness of permafrost. All these features are also important in engineering and assessing geocryological hazard solutions.

The forecast results predict the variable aspects of change in permafrost-condition change in the context of the influences of environmental and human activity. These aspects include both static and dynamic characteristics. The static characteristics reflect the resulting permafrost properties, permafrost lateral borders and thickness, talik configurations, and mean annual temperatures. The dynamic characteristics reflect the cyclical and seasonal process parameters, active-layer depths, frost heave, thermal settlement, and seasonal heat-flux values.

Frequently, a single change in a permafrost condition leads to a chain of consequences. Thus, an increasing mean annual ground temperature and active-layer depth is accompanied by thaw settlement and local flooding. Then, the progressive permafrost thawing of ice-bearing facies leads to intense thermal denudation (Ershov, 2008). For example, initial local flooding leads to permafrost thawing, then the conditions of the groundwater discharge change; frost heaving increases within the growing icing; the large amount of surficial meltwater provokes the ground liquefaction, and the thaw slumps.

The permafrost forecast for a specific landscape or technical structure on a specific foundational ground is closely tightly linked to permafrost mapping. A map helps localize and prove the abundance of calculated sets of input data, and the result of geocryological forecasting helps create a new map of future permafrost changes.

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Figure 31. An example of a permafrost evolution map in 1:4800 scale: The number in the circle denotes the element of zonation for an individual permafrost numerical simulation: (a) a new permafrost formation with the residual thaw layer and deep taliks; (2) a new permafrost formation with the residual thaw layer; (3) an increase in active layer depth and mean annual ground temperature; (4) an increase in active layer depth and a stable ground temperature; (5) an increase in the permafrost table and the mean annual ground temperature; and (6) a restoration of initial permafrost conditions.

Source: Ershov (2008).

Impacts of human activity in areas with seasonal ground freezing and thawing require special approaches to natural-risk mitigation. Such processes as frost heaving, thermal settlement, icing, and thermal erosion bring direct mechanical action to elements of infrastructure. Additionally, these processes form the corresponding phenomena that change the condition of human activity (such as ice mounds, thermokarst lakes, gullies, and surficial- and ground-ice bodies). Permafrost phenomena provide the adjacent dangers (such as kurums), which concentrate the subsurficial water discharge and localize the icing in the lower part of the slopes (Tyurin, Romanovsky, & Poltev 1982).

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Figure 32. A kurum (debris slope) in the Udokan Ridge (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

Even if the active processes are not evident, the gradual change of permafrost conditions leads to an off-rating position in early-constructed buildings. For example, the slow, gradual change of the permafrost temperature affects the bearing capacity of the ground and can cause abrupt implantation damage, with human death and economic losses.

The economic damage arises during the infrastructure construction and operation periods in permafrost areas. It can be caused by widespread natural hazards as well, which become specific in permafrost conditions. These hazards include earthquakes, flooding and waterlogging, desertification, deflation, floods, mudslides, avalanches, landslides, and karst.

A permafrost-related danger is the possibility that a local change in permafrost conditions will affect the stability of engineering structures, modes of economic activity, and the characteristics of natural resources and ecosystems, and cause unforeseen damage to infrastructure and financial losses.

Analysis of 15 years of economic losses from geocryological processes in Russia showed the large, territorial extent of this.

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Figure 33. A schematic map of places of economic losses that were linked with different geocryological processes from 2000 to 2015, according to an oral report (Sergeev, Chesnokova, Morozova, & Voytenko, 2016).

Almost any environmental change activates various permafrost-related processes. For example, relative climate warming intensifies thermokarst development, and climate cooling intensifies frost heaving.

In the examples shown, we can see the complexity of the notion of a permafrost hazard. Without this concept, the risk evaluation has no basis. The structure of the concept of permafrost hazard includes:

  1. 1. The expectations of potential damage. It is expressed as the spatial areas in which permafrost-related processes are possible.

  2. 2. The quantitative evaluation of the expected development of a process including its magnitude at a fixed time.

  3. 3. The quantitative evaluation of the expected final geological effect of changed in permafrost at the end of the considered time interval (such as a change in the stress-strain state of the ground, the evolution of the relief, and changing the water-physical properties of the soil).

Each of these elements of the danger evaluation can be independently used in risk assessment. These procedures should be different for each risk recipient. Individual interests include life, health, and the possibility of economic loss related to personal property. Corporate interests should take into account the economic interests of the group and the possibility of reputational losses. The public interest includes municipal and regional economic interests, environmental aspects, and public values. The environmental aspects relate to violations of environmental laws and damage to natural resources (e.g., water, forests, and land). In this case, vulnerability is not a uniquely defined term. We distinguish the vulnerability of the spatial position of an object from the vulnerability that results from poor construction and/or design.

The difficulty with the universal approach to geocryological hazard assessment lies in the different rates of different processes. For example, a thaw slump can be realized almost immediately; thermokarst subsidence can cause damage during a single season; and cryogenic weathering of artificial embankment ground can progress over decades. This makes is necessary to group the processes and to assess their danger in separate procedures.

The following are the main characteristics of a geocryological danger:

  1. 1. A clear danger or the presence of at least one phenomenon that emerged in similar geological and geographical conditions during the reporting period. If possible, an attempt should be made to estimate the frequency of dangerous events.

  2. 2. The spatial and temporal proximity of the process to the risk recipient. This is the ability to direct influence on infrastructure.

  3. 3. The level of danger. This is the magnitude of the process or the extent of the phenomenon, which is associated with risk and depends on the impacted subject.

The source of permafrost-related hazards is ground-ice distribution in permafrost. This includes the amount and structural position of ice, liquid and unfrozen water, and other fluids in relation to the geological units. It presents the possibility of permafrost processes. There is spatial and temporal heterogeneity in permafrost conditions. The factors accounting in the spatial heterogeneity are the present and past processes that have left their mark on the relict permafrost phenomena.

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Figure 34. The epigenetic part of an ice wedge. The massive ice is located below the active layer, and the bottom of the active layer is shown by the arrow (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

The cause of temporal heterogeneity of permafrost conditions is the external control effect of human-made impacts, the evolution of the climate, and surface vegetation (Shur & Jorgenson, 2007).

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Figure 35. A thermokarst settlement along a temporal road, which disturbed the natural vegetation (northern Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia).

The factors leading to permafrost hazards are climatic, hydrological, geobotanical, and geological and include natural or human-caused events that change the heat-transfer conditions in the ground or on the surface. The estimation of the leading factor is based on an assessment of the typical speed of the changes, which should be comparable with the depth of the geocryological forecast.

It is necessary to distinguish external and internal and visible and hidden hazards.

External dangers imply a negative impact from permafrost processes of which the source is not associated with the infrastructure itself. For example, the thermal erosion gully that was formed naturally outside a pipeline right of way can finely grow and threaten the pipeline. In this case, the geocryological forecast is focused on the natural causes that initiated the process.

The internal dangers are linked with impacts of human activities triggering processes. Thus, the construction of a railway embankment leads to long-term thawing of the frozen, foundational ground and poses the danger of thermal subsidence. It’s important to note that the data and the danger estimation methods in these two examples should be different.

The question of visible and hidden hazards is more complicated. We can identify the negative processes by their relevant features. For example, thermokarst can be identified by water-filled depressions with the typical landslip and crack on the shores. Thermal erosion forms ravines with frozen ground in the thalweg. Many phenomena continue to exist and evolve after their original essential process; for example, thermokarst lakes that started as thermal subsidence continue to evolve within the coastal abrasion, and thermokarst deposits form at the bottom of a lake. Therefore, coverage of the territory by features does not justify an automatic judgment about process activity.

Hidden dangers can be divided into two groups:

  1. 1. Active processes and modern phenomena that are not identified by standard (nonpermafrost) survey methods. An example of this group is a thawing settlement that is linked with the lowered permafrost table.

  2. 2. Potential adverse processes, the development of which are projected under certain conditions. An example of the dangers of this group is the malfunctioning of a pipeline system because of thawing ice wedges from pumped-oil-heated ground.

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Figure 36. Structural damage caused by thawing permafrost, which has a table at a depth of more than 10 meters, 2007 (Nadym, Western Siberia).

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Figure 37. An aerial view of a crude-oil pipeline and the thermokarst lake.

The principle challenge for contemporary permafrost science is establishing the link between changing permafrost conditions and the level of permafrost hazards.


  1. 1. Geocryological danger is the possibility of a local change in permafrost conditions that can affect infrastructure and the environment.

  2. 2. Permafrost processes have characteristically slow velocity when it comes to action (compared with, say, meteorological hazards), but this can also be destructive in the long term.

  3. 3. Climate change triggers permafrost hazards.

  4. 4. The source of the seemingly stochastic spatial distribution of permafrost hazards is the cryolithological heterogeneity that is linked with geological history.

  5. 5. Mapping is the one of most effective methods for analyzing the factors and spatial distribution of permafrost hazards.


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