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Permafrost landscapes

Two scientists who have been in the field to study permafrost landscapes share their experiences.
An aerial view of a thermokarst landscape dotted with many small lakes in the Alaskan tundra.
© Woodwell Climate Research Center

Now that we know what and where permafrost is, what do those landscapes look like?

Natalie Baillargeon and Anneka Williams have both visited field sites in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a region shaped by permafrost. Below, they share some photos and experiences so you can get a glimpse into just one landscape in this diverse region.

Looking out over the many lakes of the thermokarst landscape in Alaska, with a yellow float plane wing in the foreground.

Photo: Natalie Baillargeon

Natalie – “This photo was taken from a float plane as we flew towards our base camp in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD), which is mostly underlaid by permafrost. The YKD is wetland tundra. It is also one of the most biologically-productive regions of the Arctic tundra, dominated by lichens and mosses.”

Anneka works with equipment among Alaskan tundra vegetation

Photo: Anneka Williams

Anneka – “Working in permafrost landscapes requires that you adjust the scale at which you think. From above, the tundra region that I worked in looked like a vast, flat expanse dotted with thermokarst lakes. But when I actually got on the ground, I realized that the tundra was a much more heterogeneous landscape.”

A collection of tents sits on a grassy peninsula beneath an early-morning sky.

Photo: Natalie Baillargeon

Natalie – “This was our base camp. While we never got a true sunrise (the sun would never rise or set in the summer), the mornings were still stunning.”

Natalie holds a small circle of thawing permafrost.

Photo: Rhys MacArthur

Natalie – “The picture above is me holding a piece of permafrost. It felt cold and had a similar texture to very fine soil. This landscape is also home to lots of mosquitoes; you can see them trying to bite me in the second photo. The mosquitoes favored me quite a bit, so you would almost always find me, even at meals, in my mosquito jacket.”

Natalie holds a small circle of thawing permafrost, with mosquito netting covering her face.

Photo: Rhys MacArthur

Researchers walk across the uneven, grassy terrain of the Alaskan tundra.

Photo: Anneka Williams

Anneka – “One of the best words to describe the terrain, in my opinion, is ‘bumpy.’ There are lots of tussocks and small hills and fens which create changes in topography that aren’t noticeable on large scales, but can be quite hard to navigate when you’re actually walking around the landscape with your own two feet.”

Two people hold out their hands cupping small blue berries.

Photo: Anneka Williams

Anneka – “The tundra smells really earthy and mossy and muddy and I actually really loved how raw and untouched it smelled. We also spent a lot of time in waders because the ground is so wet that I remember feeling really sticky for a lot of my time in the field.”

A close-up image of lichens and other small tundra vegetation, in greens and reds and oranges.

Photo: Anneka Williams

Anneka – “There are also a lot of really small plants and tons of different types of vegetation, but it took being on the ground and really looking at the vegetation with a closer eye to start to appreciate how diverse and robust the vegetation of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is.”

Looking out over an inlet or river, with small green plants on the near shore.

Photo: Natalie Baillargeon

Natalie – “In the foreground of the photo, you can see the tundra is home to many types of plant and lichen species; almost like a miniature forest.”

A field of cottongrass, a plant with white fluffy seeds.

Photo: Natalie Baillargeon

Natalie – “Pictured above is a field of cottongrass, named for the texture of the seeds. They truly felt so soft. In the distance, you can see a strange hill. This is unusual to see on the landscape, and I believe the only one we have seen in this field area. Our theory is that it might be a pingo (a unique permafrost landform).”

An aerial view of a river, with shrubs closest to the banks and grasses stretching out beyond.

Photo: Natalie Baillargeon

​​ Natalie – “This photo is taken from the helicopter to get us to a field site that is farther away. Large rivers like this are often accompanied by some of the largest shrubberies you would see on this landscape. If you are lucky, you can sometimes find moose hiding between them.”

A moose makes its way toward a river in the Arctic, across green grasses.

Photo: Anneka Williams

A close-up image of a cloudberry, an orange compound berry that grows in the Alaskan tundra.

Photo: Natalie Baillargeon

Natalie – “I chose all of these photos to share because I don’t think this is what most people imagine when they think of a permafrost landscape. Before I studied permafrost, it is definitely not what I imagined. I often include photos like these to start research presentations to better explain how and why I study vegetation and wildfires in the tundra.”

Anneka lies on the grass in the tundra, with water behind her. The landscape is flat and grassy.

Photo: Anneka Williams

Anneka – “It’s humbling to work in a place where the horizon line appears infinite in every direction. Even though we (humans) were the tallest features of the landscape (because there are no trees or mountains or structures), I felt really small because the tundra stretched so far all around us. And it feels like a weird mix of an ancient, untouched landscape that has been around for centuries while also being a highly dynamic environment that is changing before your eyes and underneath your feet as permafrost melts and the ground sinks.”

© Woodwell Climate Research Center
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Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic

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