Snow, Ice and Permafrost

The goal of cryospheric research at the Geophysical Institute is to understand the properties and processes which occur within snow, ice and permafrost, their role in the shaping of the landscape, and their influence on climate and impact on the biosphere. Studies include field investigations throughout the arctic, antarctic, and mountainous regions of our planet, with increasing participation in the exploration of Mars and Jovian satellites.

SnowIce Ice Permafrost ice illustration



Debris Glacier (c) Permafrost Laboratories

The Geophysical Institute Permafrost Laboratory
The Permafrost Laboratory deals with scientific questions related to circumpolar permafrost dynamics and feedbacks between permafrost and global change. At the Permafrost Laboratory, data related to the thermal and structural state of circumpolar permafrost is collected and analyzed. The focus of our research is development of methods to physically and mathematically model permafrost interactions with the climate system (permafrost modeling); study of naturally and human-induced disturbances of permafrost (permafrost process studies); detection of changes in permafrost temperature, thickness, and distribution over time (permafrost monitoring); and prediction of impacts of permafrost changes on the natural environment (e.g. ecosystems, hydrology, carbon cycle) as well as human-related concerns (e.g. infrastructure).

We are interested in all aspects of how permafrost is affected by global change with respect to climate as well as natural and human-induced disturbances. The Permafrost Lab was established in the 1960s by Professor Thomas E. Osterkamp at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The Group

Inside Ice Blister (c) Permafrost Laboratories

Our team consists of Professor of Geophysics Vladimir Romanovsky, Associate Professor Dr. Sergey S. Marchenko, Assistant Professor Dr. Dmitry Nicolsky, Research Associates Dr. Alexander Kholodov, Dr. Reginald Muskett and Dr. Santosh Panda; doctoral students Viacheslav V. Garayshin, Louise Farquharson, and Prajna Regmi Lindgren.

Research Professional Lily Cohen and Research Professional II Bill Cable (also a Masters Graduate Student at the University of Copenhagen - University of The Arctic) complements our group with their expertise. We closely collaborate with many other researchers and students at UAF. Our collaborations extend to the Department of Energy Laboratories and the Department of Interior USGS, The Alfred Wegener Institute, The World Meteorological Organization and the International Permafrost Association and many universities in Europe, Russia and China.

Sea Ice

Barrow Ice Crack 2008Welcome

The fact that ice floats is one of its most amazing and important properties. There are very few other materials on Earth, and none as abundant as water, that expand as they solidify so that the solid form becomes less dense than the liquid form. The source of this remarkable trait is at the molecular level and how the electric charge surrounding the two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom that comprise the water molecule is distributed. This leads to a more open crystal structure in ice, as opposed to the denser packing of water molecules in liquid water. The structure of the water molecule and its arrangement in the solid also gives rise to the spectacular six-fold symmetry of snow flakes.

The buoyancy of ice is such a well-known phenomenon that it is easy to forget its importance. The world would be a vastly different place if ice sank to the bottom of the sea, where it would accumulate and fill the ocean basins. In our floating-ice world however, the ice remains on the surface where it modulates global climate by reflecting solar energy and insulating the waters beneath. It also provides a habitat and platform for a wide range of organisms and is used as a travel corridor by man as well. In the Floating Ice Group, we study a broad range of subjects with global implications that all arise from the peculiarities of the water molecule.

Visit the Sea Ice Group website.

Looking for Amphipods (SBI gallery image)Student research opportunities:

For information about student research opportunities, please contact Hajo Eicken ( or Andy Mahoney (


"Barrow Sea Ice Crack" image; credit/reference
"Looking for Amphipods" image; credit/reference

News Releases


Snow photo by M.SturmSnow covers approximately 45,000,000 kmĀ² of the Northern Hemisphere each winter, or approximately 47 percent of the total land mass of that region. This seasonal snow lasts anywhere from two to 10 months of the year, with its importance in climatic and hydrologic systems increasing with duration. Snow cover plays a crucial role in climate because it has such a high albedo, reflecting large amounts of solar energy. It is also a good thermal insulator, reducing winter soil freezing extent and playing a key role in the thermal balance of permafrost.

Numerous studies have documented the sensitivity of the climate system to changes in snow onset, melt timing, and snow extent and depth. Similarly, in the hydrologic system, snow cover provides up to 80 percent of the total runoff in some regions. For example, in the Western U.S., melting mountain snow packs provide much of the water for agriculture and power generation. In Alaska, where the snow lasts six to 10 months of the year, snow cover is critical to the overall functioning of the ecosystem and is embedded in the socio-economic system, where it affects transportation, construction schedules and cultural activities.

At the Geophysical Institute snow figures prominently in much of the research done by the Snow, Ice and Permafrost group. Specific projects focused on the snow cover itself include NSF-funded projects on snow instrumentation, joint NASA-NSF projects on mapping snow pack thickness using airborne LIDAR, and investigations into snow ecology (vegetation and animals).

(Photos by M. Sturm)

Snow photo by M.Sturm