Department of Geography

Permafrost Laboratory

The Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Sussex conducts both laboratory- and fieldwork-based research as well as consultancy on permafrost.

Permafrost – an introduction

Permafrost is ground that remains at or below 0°C for two years or more. It is a geological manifestation of climate and an important factor in ecological and biogeochemical feedbacks in the global climate system. At present, permafrost ranges in thickness from centimetres to ~1500 m and underlies ~15 million km2 of the exposed land surface. But during the last 3 million years (since the Pliocene Epoch), permafrost extent has repeatedly expanded and contracted on glacial‒interglacial, or other timescales. Geologically, evidence for permafrost is known from as far back at the Cryogenian Period (720–635 Ma). Beyond Earth, permafrost is extensive on cold planetary bodies such as Mars.

The Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Sussex runs a unique facility for conducting physical modelling experiments on freezing and thawing of geological and engineering materials. Lab staff also carries out fieldwork on permafrost in Canada and Siberia, and consultancy on the engineering geology of periglacial and permafrost terrains. The lab welcomes enquiries about lab experiments, consultancy or field research.

Laboratory experiments

Rationale

The lab contains a cold room designed to simulate either permafrost (ground that remains at or below 0°C for two years or more) and seasonal frost (ground that freezes for a few weeks or months in winter).

It simulates freeze-thaw processes and structure development (micro- to macroscale) on natural materials (e.g. soil, rock, peat) and artificial materials (e.g. concrete, brick, asphalt).

Laboratory experiments speed up geological or engineering time to simulate multiple years of freeze-thaw during much shorter periods.

Environmental conditions are controlled and monitored, and structure development is repeatedly imaged to show rates of change.

Key features

  • Dual freezing system where both air and permafrost can be controlled independently to temperatures as low as –20°C for weeks to months
  • Facility for long-term (1–2 years or more) experiments with continuous data logging, allowing simulation of 30 or more seasonal winter-summer cycles of freezing and thawing
  • Design and fabrication of bespoke equipment
  • Automatic data logging (e.g. temperature, heave, liquid water content, acoustic emissions) & remote access to monitor experiments
  • Potential access to research-level Computer Tomography (CT) scanning and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at Sussex’s Clinical Imaging Sciences Centre and the Micromorphology Centre, Queen Mary University of London, for monitoring of micro- and macrostructure development in 2D or 3D

Ancillary facilities

  • Sample preparation (e.g. rock cutting, drilling & instrumentation)
  • Rock strength testing
  • Two thermal climate cabinets (900 and 400 litres) with an operating range of –40°C to +100°C and 10–98% relative humidity for rapid small sample testing
  • High-resolution photogrammetry (e.g. to image surface change)

Potential users from industry, universities and other organisations are welcome to discuss potential hire of the lab with Julian Murton j.b.murton@sussex.ac.uk.

Tilting tank Tilting tank for cliff or rockwall experiments.

Collaboration in experimental design may be possible with experts at Sussex and more widely in the international permafrost, engineering geology and sensor technology communities, with which Sussex has excellent links.

Technical details

The cold room has been built to specifications utilizing the in-house expertise of an experimental officer and technical support in electronics. The cold room measures 3.2 m wide x 3.5 m long x 2.5 m high. It currently contains two moveable tanks (0.75 m wide x 1.9 m long x 0.5 m high) that can hold rock or soil, one of which can be tilted to near vertical for simulating cliffs. Different configurations of experiments can be discussed to suit users’ needs.

Recent research

Recent research in the cold room has focussed on imaging of rock freezing and thawing with novel geoelectrical and acoustic techniques, in collaboration with the British Geological Survey and the Technical University of Munich. Ongoing experiments are now investigating the microcracking to macrocracking transition in rock using micro-CT scanning and acoustic methods.

Instrumented rock blocks 2Instrumented rock blocks within freezing tank in cold room.


Instrumented rock blocksInstrumented rock blocks (450 mm high x 300 mm x 300 mm wide) prior to installation in freezing tanks.

Fractures formed in limestone (chalk) by growth of segregated iceFractures formed in limestone (chalk) by growth of segregated ice.

Thaw cycle 17Thaw cycle 17 in 2-year experiment on geophysical imaging of rock thermal conditions.

Publications in experimental periglacial geomorphology

Murton JB, Kuras O, Krautblatter M, Cane T, Tschofen D, Uhlemann S, Schober S, Watson P. 2016. Monitoring rock freezing and thawing by novel geoelectrical and acoustic techniques. Journal of Geophysical Research – Earth Surface, DOI:10.1002/2016JF003948

Murton JB, Ozouf J-C, Peterson R. 2016. Heave, settlement and fracture of chalk during temperature cycling above and below 0°C. Geomorphology 270: 71–87. doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2016.07.016

Harris C, Kern-Luetschg M, Murton JB, Font M, Davies M, Smith F. 2008. Solifluction processes on permafrost and non-permafrost slopes: results of a large scale laboratory simulation. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 19: 359–378.

Matsuoka N, Murton JB. 2008. Frost weathering: recent advances and future directions. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 19: 195–210.

Murton JB, Peterson R, Ozouf J-C. 2006. Bedrock fracture by ice segregation in cold regions. Science 314: 1127–1129. DOI: 10.1126/science.1132127 [see also accompanying Perspective by B. Hallet 2006. Why do freezing rocks break? Science, 314, 1092–1093.]

Harris C, Murton JB, Davies MCR. 2005. An analysis of mechanisms of ice-wedge casting based on geotechnical centrifuge modelling. Geomorphology 71: 328–343.

Murton JB, Coutard J-P, Ozouf J-C, Lautridou J-P, Robinson DA, Williams RBG. 2001. Physical modelling of bedrock brecciation by ice segregation in permafrost. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 12: 255–266.

Harris C, Murton JB, Davies MCR. 2000. Soft-sediment deformation during thawing of ice-rich frozen soils: results of scaled centrifuge modelling experiments. Sedimentology 47: 687–700.

Field research

Field research focuses on understanding of permafrost as a driver and record of past and modern climate and environmental change and combines stratigraphical, sedimentological and geochemical methods.

Fieldwork at the Batagai megaslump in SiberiaFieldwork at the Batagai megaslump in Siberia.


Ground ice is a fundamental factor in permafrost and periglacial regions, influencing material properties, landscapes, ecosystems and carbon cycling.

Ice wedges in Late Pleistocene Ice Complex deposits with massive peat layers at Muostakh Island (Northeast Siberia)Ice wedges in Late Pleistocene Ice Complex deposits with massive peat layers at Muostakh Island (Northeast Siberia).


Thaw of ice-rich permafrost (thermokarst) in Arctic and Subarctic lowlands is today a major process of landform and landscape evolution, and triggers ecological changes and biogeochemical disturbances in a warming world.

Large thermokarst lake basin at the Bykovsky Peninsula (Northeast Siberia)Large thermokarst lake basin at the Bykovsky Peninsula (Northeast Siberia)


Ancient ground ice provides an unique record (proxy) of atmospheric or ground conditions on glacial‒interglacial timescales.

Sampled Ice Complex ice wedge at the Batagai megaslump in Siberia.Sampled Ice Complex ice wedge at the Batagai megaslump in Siberia.


We carry out fieldwork on present-day permafrost regions in northern Siberia and western Arctic Canada, as well as on past permafrost in Europe.

Selected publications

Ground ice

Gilbert GL, Kanevskiy M, Murton JB. 2016. Recent advances in the study of ground ice and cryostratigraphy. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 27: 377–389. DOI: 10.1002/ppp.1912

Murton JB. 2013. Ice wedges and ice-wedge casts. In Encyclopedia of Quaternary Science, Second Edition. Elias SA, Mock CJ (eds), Elsevier: Amsterdam; Vol. 3, 436–451.

Murton JB. 2013. Ground Ice and Cryostratigraphy. In Treatise on Geomorphology, Vol 8, Glacial and Periglacial Geomorphology. Shroder JF (Editor-in-chief), Giardino R, Harbor J. (Volume Editors). Academic Press, San Diego, 173–201.

Murton JB, Whiteman CA, Waller RI, Pollard WH, Clark ID, Dallimore SR. 2005. Basal ice facies and supraglacial melt-out till of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, western Arctic Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews 24: 681–708.

Murton JB, Waller RI, Hart JK, Whiteman CA, Pollard WH, Clark ID. 2004. Stratigraphy and glaciotectonic structures of permafrost deformed beneath the northwest margin of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, Canada. Journal of Glaciology 49 (No. 170): 399–412.

Murton JB, French HM. 1994. Cryostructures in permafrost, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, Western Arctic Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 31: 737–747.

Carbon and ecosystems

Cooper MDA, Estop-Aragones C, Fisher JP, Thierry A, Garnett MH, Charman DJ, Murton JB, Phoenix GK, Treharne R, Kokelj SV, Wolfe SA, Lewkowicz AG, Williams M, Hartley IP. 2017. Limited contribution of permafrost carbon to methane release from thawing peatlands. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3328

Fisher JP, Estop-Aragonés C, Thierry A, Charman DJ, Charman DJ, Wolfe S, Hartley IP, Murton JB, Williams M, Phoenix GK. 2016. The influence of vegetation and soil characteristics on active-layer thickness of permafrost soils in boreal forest. Global Change Biology 22: 3127–3140. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13248

Thermokarst

Murton JB. 2001. Thermokarst sediments and sedimentary structures, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, Western Arctic Canada. Global and Planetary Change 28: 175–192.

Murton JB. 1996. Thermokarst-lake-basin sediments, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, Western Arctic Canada. Sedimentology 43: 737–760.

Murton JB, French HM. 1993. Thermokarst involutions, Summer Island, Pleistocene Mackenzie Delta, western Canadian Arctic. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 4: 217–229.

Western Arctic Canada

Murton JB, Bateman MD, Telka A, Waller R, Whiteman CA, Kuzmina S. 2017. Early to Mid Wisconsin fluvial deposits and palaeoenvironment of the Kidluit Formation, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, western Arctic Canada. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes. DOI: 10.1002/ppp.1946

Murton JB, Bateman MD, Dallimore SR, Teller JT, Yang Z. 2010. Identification of Younger Dryas outburst flood pathway from Lake Agassiz to the Arctic Ocean. Nature 464: 740–743. doi:10.1038/nature08954

Bateman MD, Murton JB, Boulter C. 2010. The source of De variability in periglacial sand-wedges: depositional processes v. measurement issues. Quaternary Geochronology 5: 250–256.

Murton JB. 2009. Stratigraphy and paleoenvironments of Richards Island and the eastern Beaufort Continental Shelf during the last glacial-interglacial cycle. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 20: 107–125.

Bateman MD, Murton JB. 2006. Late Pleistocene glacial and periglacial aeolian activity in the Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, NWT, Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews 25: 2552–2568.

Northern Siberia

Murton JB, Edwards ME, Lozhkin AV, Anderson PM, Savvinov GN, Bakulina N, Bondarenko OV, Cherepanova M, Danilov PP, Boeskorov V, Goslar T, Grigoriev S, Gubin SV, Korzun J, Lupachev AV, Tikhonov A, Tsygankova VI, Vasilieva GV, Zanina OG. 2017. Preliminary palaeoenvironmental analysis of permafrost deposits at Batagaika megaslump, Yana Uplands, northern Siberia. Quaternary Research 87: 314–330. DOI: 10.1017/qua.2016.15

Opel T, Wetterich S, Meyer H, Dereviagin AYu, Fuchs MC, Schirrmeister L. 2017. Ground-ice stable isotopes and cryostratigraphy reflect late Quaternary palaeoclimate in the Northeast Siberian Arctic (Oyogos Yar coast, Dmitry Laptev Strait). Climate of the Past 13: 587-611. DOI: 10.5194/cp-13-587-2017

Opel T, Laepple T, Meyer H, Dereviagin AYu, Wetterich S. 2017. Northeast Siberian Arctic ice wedges confirm winter warming over the past two millennia. The Holocene OnlineFirst. DOI: 10.1177/0959683617702229

Grieman MM, Aydin M, Fritzsche D, McConnell JR, Opel T, Saltzman ES, Sigl M. 2017. Aromatic acids in a Eurasian Arctic ice core: a 2600-year proxy record of biomass burning. Climate of the Past 13: 395-410. DOI: 10.5194/cp-13-395-2017

von Albedyll L, Opel T, Fritzsche D, Merchel S, Rugel G. 2017. 10Be in the Akademii Nauk ice core – first results for CE 1590-1950 and implications for future chronology validation. Journal of Glaciology 63(239): 514-522. DOI: 10.1017/jog.2017.19

Murton JB, Goslar T, Edwards ME, Bateman MD, Danilov PP, Savvinov GN, Gubin SV, Ghaleb B, Haile J, Kanevskiy M, Lozhkin AV, Lupachev AV, Murton DK, Shur Y, Tikhonov A, Vasil’chuk AC, Vasil’chuk YK, Wolfe SA. 2015. Palaeoenvironmental interpretation of yedoma silt (Ice Complex) deposition as cold-climate loess, Duvanny Yar, northeast Siberia. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 26: 208–288. DOI: 10.1002/ppp.1843

Past permafrost

Murton JB, Giles DP. 2016. The Quaternary Periglaciation of Kent. Field Guide. Quaternary Research Association, 107 pp.

Waller RI, Phillips E, Murton JB, Lee JR, Whiteman, CA. 2011. Sand intraclasts as evidence of subglacial deformation of Middle Pleistocene permafrost, north Norfolk, UK. Quaternary Science Reviews 30: 3481–3500.

Murton JB, Belshaw R. 2011. A conceptual model of valley incision, planation and terrace formation during cold and arid permafrost conditions of Pleistocene southern England. Quaternary Research 75: 285–394.

Murton JB, Bateman MD, Baker CA, Knox R, Whiteman CA. 2003. The Devensian periglacial record on Thanet, Kent, UK. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 14: 217–246.

Murton JB, Kolstrup E. 2003. Ice-wedge casts as indicators of palaeotemperatures: precise proxy or wishful thinking? Progress in Physical Geography 27: 155–170.

Murton JB, Worsley P, Gozdzik J. 2000. Sand veins and wedges in cold aeolian environments. Quaternary Science Reviews 19: 899–922.

Murton JB. 1996. Near-surface brecciation of Chalk, Isle of Thanet, southeast England: a comparison with ice-rich brecciated bedrocks in Canada and Spitsbergen. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 7, 153–164.

Consultancy

Much of the UK’s infrastructure, onshore and offshore, overlies or dissects terrain and substrates disturbed by periglacial or permafrost processes during past ice ages. The disturbances include relict shear surfaces in clay-rich hillslope deposits, metre-scale vertical fractures (‘gulls’) in competent caprocks beside valleys, and widespread brecciated bedrock to depths of a few metres. Failure to identify such features and incorporate them into engineering design specifications can be costly and delay building work.

The complexity of many periglacial sequences makes it essential for both geomorphological mapping and geological mapping to be undertaken prior to the design and interpretation of ground investigations.

Lab staff offer consultancy advice in the form of field investigations, laboratory studies (in the cold room) or desk studies. In-depth studies of substrate behaviour may be possible through industrial case PhD studentships between the University of Sussex and industrial or commercial partners.

Periglacial regions and timescales of the UK (from Murton and Ballantyne, 2017)Periglacial regions and timescales of the UK (from Murton and Ballantyne, 2017).

Selected references in periglacial engineering geology

Geological Society Engineering Geology Special Publication 28  Geological Society Engineering
  Geology Special Publication 28.

Murton JB, Ballantyne CK. 2017. Periglacial and permafrost ground models for Great Britain. In Engineering Geology and Geomorphology of Glaciated and Periglaciated Terrains, Griffiths JS & C.J. Martin CJ (eds) Geological Society, London, Engineering Group Special Publication 28.

Giles DP, Griffiths JS, Evans DJA, Murton JB. 2017. Geomorphological framework – glacial and periglacial sediments, structures and landforms. In Engineering Geology and Geomorphology of Glaciated and Periglaciated Terrains, Griffiths JS & CJ. Martin CJ (eds). Geological Society, London, Engineering Group Special Publication 28, 59–368. DOI: 10.1144/EGSP28.3

Geological Society Periglacial and Glacial Engineering Geology Working PartyGeological Society Periglacial and Glacial Engineering Geology Working Party members (Left to right: Dr Sven Lukas, Prof. Julian Murton, Prof. David Norbury, Prof. Martin Culshaw, Prof. David Evans, Prof. Jim Griffiths, Ms Anna Morley, Prof. Mike Winter, Dr David Giles, Dr Mike de Freitas, Mr Chris Martin)

People and contacts

Julian Murton

Julian Murton

Professor of Permafrost Science

Department of Geography

University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

Email: J.B.Murton@sussex.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)1273 678293

Website: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/geography/people/peoplelists/person/30834

Thomas OpelThomas Opel

Visiting Research Fellow

Department of Geography,  University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

Email: T.Opel@sussex.ac.uk

Website: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/399605

Researchgate: http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas_Opel   |   Twitter: https://twitter.com/iso_topel

Tim CaneTim Cane

Experimental Officer

Department of Geography

University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

Email: T.Cane@sussex.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)1273 877117

Website: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/geography/people/peoplelists/person/126806

Barry Jackson

Senior Technician (Electrical and Electronic) (Engineering (Technical Services))

University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

Email: B.Jackson@sussex.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)1273 606755 ext. 2144

Website: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/1363

Vikram MajiVikram Maji

PhD Student

Department of Geography

University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

Email: V.Maji@sussex.ac.uk

Robert PranceRobert Prance

Research Professor of Sensor Technology

Department of Engineering & Design

University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RH, UK

Email: R.J.Prance@sussex.ac.uk

Telephone: +44 (0)1273 872577

Website: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/engineering/people/peoplelists/person/2152