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The view from inside a pingo
by Ned Rozell


April 30, 2004

Hanno Meyer smiled like a little boy when he emerged from a 30-foot hole drilled into a forested mound in Interior Alaska.

"Even though I am studying permafrost, it's the first time I've been in a pingo," said Meyer, who had the day before flown to Fairbanks from Potsdam, Germany, where he works at the

Photo - permafrost

German permafrost scientist Lutz Schirrmeister of Potsdam hands a rope to Kenji Yoshikawa, a Fairbanks permafrost scientist who has drilled a 30-foot hole into a local pingo. Ned Rozell photo.
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.

The guide to Meyer's tour inside an Alaska pingo was Kenji Yoshikawa, an assistant professor of water resources at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While Meyer was en route, Yoshikawa had supervised the drilling of a 30-foot deep, two-foot wide hole into the solid ice west of Fairbanks.

Pingos are mounds with cores of ice that pimple the landscape of Arctic and Interior Alaska. The mounds can range from the size of a Volkswagen Bug to a domed stadium, and the one Yoshikawa drilled into is large enough to provide the foundation for a castle. But no castles sit atop Yoshikawa's pingo; there are only spruce trees and a carpet of moss.

Pingos form in the Interior because of permafrost-soil that remains frozen for at least one year. Ice-rich permafrost in valley bottoms is a barrier to artesian groundwater (water under pressure that wants to flow upward), but springs sometimes bubble up through small fractures in the frozen ground, allowing water to escape toward the surface. If the climate is cold enough, the spring water will freeze in the permafrost before it reaches the surface, creating a buried core of massive ice that lifts tremendous amounts of soil as it expands. Thousands of years are required for pingos to grow to the size of the one Yoshikawa drilled.

Meyer's recent trip into the pingo consisted of a climb down an aluminum ladder extended to its last rung. As he descended wearing a hard hat and a headlamp, he paused to feel the smooth, frozen surface of the soil walls, which felt like cold cement. With every step down on the ladder, Meyer passed thousands of years of silt blown in from glaciers, remains of plants that froze in the days of the wooly mammoth, and the suspended bones of creatures long since extinct. While inside the pingo, Meyer smelled an odor reminiscent of a dairy farm.

"That's methane," Yoshikawa said. Methane is the gaseous remains of ancient plant and animal life. The gas is a major concern of researchers who study greenhouse gases and the

photo - permafrost

Kenji Yoshikawa stands 30 feet deep in a pingo, a forested mound with a core of ice. Ned Rozell photo.
warming of the north. Permafrost in the Arctic and subarctic holds an incredible amount of methane, ready to be let loose in the atmosphere if the permafrost melts.

Yoshikawa has big plans for the Fairbanks pingo. He wants to find the ages of the ice layers inside and use isotopic tests to determine where the water captured in the pingo came from. By looking at the chemistry of the ice, researchers can determine the original source of the precipitation that over centuries became a pingo. Knowing the origin of the water might tell Yoshikawa and other researchers how climate patterns have evolved in Interior Alaska. Some water may have originated in a weather system born over the Bering Sea, for example, or maybe the Gulf of Alaska or Mackenzie River delta. The pingo will also yield ancient plant and animal life. On drilling day, Yoshikawa found an ancient bone, perhaps part of a hip, preserved in the permafrost about seven feet below the ground surface.

This summer, Yoshikawa wants to dig a tunnel through the side of the pingo to meet the vertical drill hole. He has prior experience, having dug into a pingo in Svalbard, a Norway territory in the high Arctic, for his graduate work. In Fairbanks, he will use an electric jackhammer and chainsaw to tunnel through the clear ice of the pingo. Yoshikawa did not have those luxuries in Svalbard, where he spent an entire summer chipping into a pingo with picks and other hand tools.

"It was very fun," Yoshikawa said.


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute



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