Department of Geography

Permafrost Laboratory

The Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Sussex is a unique specialist facility for carrying out experiments on freezing and thawing of geological and engineering materials. The Lab is uniquely designed to simulate both permafrost (ground that remains at or below 0°C for 2 years or more) and seasonal frost (ground that freezes for a few weeks or months in winter). It permits investigation of freeze-thaw processes and structure development (microscale to macroscale) on a range of natural materials (e.g. soil, rock, peat) and artificial materials (e.g. concrete, brick, tarmac). Laboratory simulation speeds up geological time so that we can examine the equivalent of many years’ of natural freezing and thawing during a much shorter period. It also allows careful control and monitoring of environmental conditions, and repeated observation of structure evolution.

The University of Sussex has a long and distinguished research record in experimental sciences (e.g. Chemistry, Physics, Geomorphology) and engineering (e.g. sensor technology), with excellent interdisciplinary technical support. The Geomorphology research group in the Department of Geography, home to the Permafrost Lab, has a strong track record of publications in the high-impact journals Science and Nature. It also has close links to engineering geology and geophysics at the British Geological Survey, the Periglacial and Glacial Engineering Geology Working Group of the Geological Society and to commercial geomorphology at CH2MHILL.

Key features of the Permafrost Lab:

  • 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 by Geography’s Experimental Officer and Sussex’s Sensor Technology Research Centre
  • 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 microstructure and macrostructure development in 2D or 3D
  • Automatic data logging (e.g. temperature, heave, liquid water content) & remote access to monitor experiments

Ancillary facilities include:

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

Potential users from industry, universities and other organisations in the UK or internationally are welcome to discuss potential hire of the Lab with Julian Murton. Collaboration in experimental design may be possible with experts at Sussex and more widely in the international permafrost, engineering geology and sensor technology communities, in which Sussex has excellent links.

Technical details

The Lab has been built to specifications utilizing the in-house expertise of Geography’s Experimental Officer and technical support in electronics. The Lab 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.

Tilting tankTilting tank for cliff or rockwall experiments.

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

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

OedometerOedometer experiment on freezing sand. Source: Blanchet (2010).


Publications by the Sussex group & collaborators

High-Impact papers

Willerslev E, Davison J, Moora M, Zobel M, Coissac E, Edwards ME, Lorenzen ED, Vestergård M, Gussarova G, Haile J, Craine J, Gielly L, Boessenkool S, Epp LS, Pearman PB, Cheddadi R, Murray D, Bråthen KA, Yoccoz N, Binney H, Cruaud C, Wincker P, Goslar T, Alsos IG, Bellemain E, Brysting AK, Elven R, Sønstebø JH, Murton J, Sher A, Rasmussen M, Rønn R, Mourier T, Cooper A, Austin J, Möller P, Froese D, Zazula G, Pompanon F, Rioux D, Niderkorn V, Tikhonov A, Savvinov G, Roberts RG, MacPhee RDE, Gilbert MPT, Kjær K, Orlando L, Brochmann C, Taberle P. 2014. Fifty thousand years of arctic vegetation and megafauna diet. Nature 506, 47–51. doi:10.1038/nature12921

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.

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.]

Selected articles on freezing experiments and electrical rock sensing

Murton JB, Ozouf J-C, Peterson R, Heave, settlement and fracture of chalk during physical modelling experiments with temperature cycling above and below 0°C [PDF 6.13MB]  Geomorphology

Aydin A, Prance RJ, Prance H, Harland CJ. 2009. Observation of pressure stimulated voltages in rocks using an electric potential sensor. Appl. Phys. Lett. 95: 124102 ; doi:10.1063/1.3236774

Aydin A, Dobbs MR, Reeves HJ, Kirkham MP, Graham CC. 2013. Stress induced e-field measurements of different rock lithology using Electric Potential Sensor, 47th US Rock Mechanics/Geomechanics Symposium (ARMA ), San Francisco,  23-26 June 2013.

Aydin A, Dobbs MR, Reeves HJ, Graham CC, Kirkham MP. 2013.  Measuring stress induced electric field in sandstone and granite using the Electric Potential Sensor, ISRM International Symposium – Rock Mechanics (EUROCK), Wroclaw,  23-26 Sept. 2013.

Blanchet V. 2010. The effect of freeze thaw cycles on sand properties and behaviour. Unpublished MSc Thesis in Soil Mechanics and Environmental Geotechnics, Imperial College London & University of Sussex.

Kuras O, Uhlemann S, Krautblatter M, Murton J, Haslam E, Wilkinson P, Meldrum P. 2012. The use of capacitive resistivity imaging (CRI) for monitoring laboratory experiments simulating permafrost growth, persistence and thaw in bedrock. [Poster] In: AGU Fall Meeting 2012, San Francisco, USA, 3-7 December 2012.

Kuras O, Uhlemann S, Murton J, Krautblatter M. 2014 (in press). Long-term geoelectrical monitoring of laboratory freeze-thaw experiments on bedrock samples. EGU General Assembly, Abstract # EGU2014-7266.

Murton JB. 2012. Frost weathering. In: Chapter 5.2 Changing permafrost and its impacts. Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic. Report on the current status of various aspects of the Arctic’s Cryosphere by 2010. Callaghan TV and Johansson M. (eds).

Harris C, Arenson LU, Christiansen HH, Etzelmuller B, Frauenfelder R, Gruber S, Haeberli W, Hauck C, Holzle M, Humlum O, Isaksen K, Kaab A, Lehning M, Lutschg MA, Matsuoka N, Murton JB, Notzli J, Phillips M, Ross N, Seppala M, Springman SM, and Vonder Muhll D. 2009. Permafrost and Climate in Europe: geomorphologic impacts, hazard assessment and geotechnical response. Earth Science Reviews 92: 117–171.

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.

Harris C, Murton JB. 2005. Experimental simulation of ice-wedge casting: processes, products and palaeoenvironmental significance. In: Cryospheric Systems: Glaciers and Permafrost. Harris C, Murton JB. (eds). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 242, 131–143.

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.

Murton JB, Coutard J-P, Ozouf J-C, Lautridou J-P, Robinson DA, Williams RBG, Guillemet G, Simmons P. 2000. Experimental design for a pilot study on bedrock weathering near the permafrost table. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 25: 1281–1294.

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.


2010–12         NERC Technology Proof of Concept Programme Total £125,534 of which £16,102 to Sussex Monitoring the thermal state of permafrost by automated time-lapse capacitive resistivity imaging. PI: O Kuras (British Geological Survey), CI: JB Murton 

Research teamCollaborative geophysics research team 2012. From left to right Oliver Kuras (British Geological Survey), Michael Krautblatter (Technical University of München, Germany), Julian Murton & Tim Cane (Sussex) and Ed Haslam (BGS).


2004–7           NERC grant NER/B/S/2003/00748 £30,870. Laboratory simulation of solifluction processes associated with one-sided and two-sided active-layer freezing, PI: C Harris (Cardiff); CIs: JB Murton & MCR Davies (Dundee/Auckland)

2002–4           NERC grant NER/A/S/2001/00506, £103,858. Bedrock fracture by ice segregation. PI: JB Murton, Collaborators: JC Ozouf (CNRS Caen); R Peterson (U of Alaska, Fairbanks).

1998–00         NERC grant GR9/3491, £19,482. A pilot experiment on rock weathering in permafrost. PI: JB Murton; CIs: RBG Williams and DA Robinson (Sussex); Collaborators: J-C Ozouf, J-P Coutard & J-P Lautridou (CNRS Caen)

1999–00         Royal Society £9,000. Experimental simulation of ice-wedge casting, PI: C Harris (Cardiff), CI: Murton

People & Contacts

Julian MurtonJulian Murton
Professor of Permafrost Science
Department of Geography
University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)1273 678293

Tim CaneTim Cane
Experimental Officer
Department of Geography
University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)1273 877117

Transparent personBarry Jackson
Technician [electronics]
School of Life Sciences
University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)1273 606755 ext. 2144

Vikram MajiVikram Maji
PhD Student
Department of Geography
University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QJ, UK

Robert PranceRobert Prance
Professor of Sensor Technology
Department of Engineering & Design
University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RH, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)1273 872577