Department of Geography

Permafrost Laboratory

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 carry 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.

An introduction to Permafrost 

Permafrost is ground that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years. 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.

For a primer on permafrost and an update about observed changes in permafrost and their impacts on built environments and natural environments during recent decades, see:

Murton JB. 2021. Permafrost and climate change. In Climate Change: Observed Impacts on Planet Earth. 3rd Edition. Letcher, TM (ed). Elsevier, Amsterdam, 281–326. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-821575-3.00014-1

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. Other experiments have investigated 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.

 

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.

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 publications

Ground ice and cryostratigraphy

Murton JB. (2021, in press). Ground ice. In: Treatise on Geomorphology, 2nd edition, vol. 4, Cryospheric Geomorphology. Shroder JF (Editor-in-chief), Haritashya U (ed). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-818234-5.00114-0.

Murton JB. (2021, in press). Cryostratigraphy. In: Treatise on Geomorphology, 2nd edition, vol. 4, Cryospheric Geomorphology. Shroder JF (Editor-in-chief), Haritashya U (ed). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-818234-5.00115-2.

Opel T, Meyer H, Wetterich S, Laepple T, Dereviagin A, Murton JB. 2018. Ice wedges as archives of winter palaeoclimate: a review. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 29, 199–209. DOI: 10.1002/ppp.1980.

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, ecosystems, climate and permafrost

Williams M, Zhang Y, Estop-Aragonés C, Fisher J, Xenakis G, Charman D, Hartley IP, Murton JB, Phoenix GK. 2020. Boreal permafrost thaw amplified by fire disturbance and rainfall increases. Environmental Research Letters 15, 114050. doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abbeb8.

Estop-Aragones C, Cooper MDA, Fisher JP, Thierry A, Garnett MH, Charman DJ, Murton JB, Phoenix GK, Treharne R, Sanderson NK, Burn CR, Kokelj SV, Wolfe SA, Lewkowicz AG, Williams M, Hartley IP. 2018. Limited release of previously-frozen C and increased new peat formation after thaw in permafrost peatlands. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 118, 115–129. doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2017.12.010.

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

Wolfe SA, Murton JB, Bateman MD, Barlow J. 2020. Oriented-lake development in the context of late Quaternary landscape evolution, McKinley Bay Coastal Plain, western Arctic Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews 242, 106414. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106414.

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, Opel T, Toms P, Blinov A, Fuchs M, Wood J, Gärtner A, Merchel S, Rugel G, Savvinov G, Wetterich S. 2021. A multi-method dating study of ancient permafrost, Batagay megaslump, east Siberia. Quaternary Research 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1017/qua.2021.27.

Opel T, Murton JB, Wetterich S, Meyer H, Ashastina K, GüntherF, Grotheer H, Mollenhauer G, Danilov PP, Boeskorov V, Savvinov GG, Schirrmeister L. 2019. Past climate and continentality inferred from ice wedges at Batagay megaslump in the Northern Hemisphere’s most continental region, Yana Highlands, interior Yakutia. Climate of the Past 15, 1443–1461. DOI.org/10.5194/cp-15-1443-2019.

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.

Luisa 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.

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

Experimental periglacial geomorphology and engineering geology

Maji V, Murton JB. (accepted 28 June 2021). Experimental observations and statistical modelling of crack propagation dynamics in limestone by acoustic emission analysis during freezing and thawing. Journal of Geophysical Research – Earth Surface.

Zhang J-W, Murton J, Liu S, Sui L, Zhang S, Wang L, Kong L. 2021. Sensitivity and regression analysis of acoustic parameters for determining physical properties of frozen fine sand with ultrasonic test. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology 54(1). DOI: 10.1144/qjegh2020-021.

Zhang J-W, Murton J, Liu S-J, Sui L-l, Zhang S. 2020. Experimental measurement of the freezing state and frozen section thickness of fine sand by ultrasonic testing. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 32(1), 76–91. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp.2075.

Maji V, Murton JB. 2020. Experimental observations that active-layer deepening drives deeper rock fracture. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 31(2), 296–310. https://doi: 10.1002/ppp.2041.

Maji V, Murton JB. 2019. Micro-computed tomography imaging and probabilistic modelling of rock fracture by freeze–thaw. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 45(3), 666–680. DOI: 10.1002/esp.4764.

Murton JB. 2018. Frost weathering of chalk. In: Lawrence JA, Preene M, Lawrence UL, Buckley R. (eds) Engineering in Chalk: Proceedings of the Chalk 2018 Conference, 17–18 September 2018, Imperial College, London. ICE Publishing, pp. 497–502.

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.

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)

Outreach and impact

2020  BBC Reel video about Batagaika Crater, Siberia

Siberia’s enormous hole in the ground is getting bigger


2019  Comment in Newsweek about an article on Arctic landslides


2017  BBC earth report on Batagaika crater

In Siberia there is a huge crater and it is getting bigger

People and contacts

Julian Murton

Prof Julian Murton

Professor of Permafrost Science, at Sussex since 1996

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

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

Past researchers in the Permafrost Lab


Kiwi ZhangDr Jiwei Zhang

Visiting Research Fellow, 2019–20

Project: The ultrasonic response of frozen wall development in water-rich sand

Funded by the China Scholarship Council

Current address:

Shaft Construction Branch
China Coal Research Institute
Beijing, China

Phone: +86 15201457763

Email: zhangjiwei2018@sina.com

Vikram Maji
Dr Vikram Maji

PhD Student, 2014–2018

PhD thesis: An experimental investigation of micro- and macrocracking mechanisms in rocks by freeze–thaw cycling

Funded by the University of Sussex

Current address: Experimental Rock Deformation Laboratory, Department of Earth Sciences, IIT Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh- 208016, India

                                                From autumn 2022: Department of Geoscience, University of Calgary, ES 214 | 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta,                                                      Canada T2N 1N4

Dr Thomas Opel

Visiting Research Fellow, 2016–18

Project: Ice wedges as winter climate archives—towards high-quality chronologies, advanced process understanding and new paleoclimate records

Thomas OpelFunded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Current address:

Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research
Helmholtz Young Investigator Group PALICE and
Polar Terrestrial Environmental Systems
Telegrafenberg A3
14473 Potsdam
Germany

Email: thomas.opel@awi.de

Dr Cristian Estop-Aragonés

Postdoctoral Research Associate, 2013–15, jointly with University of Exeter

Project: Carbon Cycling Linkages of Permafrost Systems

Cristian Estop-AragonesFunded by NERC

Current address:

Department of Ecohydrology and Biogeochemistry
Institute of Landscape Ecology
Heisenbergstr. 2
48149 Münster, Germany

Email: cristian.estop@uni-muenster.de