Published: December 2007

Frozen Ground

Permafrost Feature


Otherworldly beautiful, the lands of perpetually frozen earth reveal the delicate rhythms of the planet. But will permafrost stay permanent?

Essay by Barry Lopez
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Bernhard Edmaier

Earth's lunar satellite, the moon, is an alien and remote though still compelling landscape known to us all. We imagine it from our front lawns and our apartment windows as a place of absence. No wind, nor any blade of grass for a breeze to stir. No people. No cascading brook or animal track. But unearthly beautiful all the same. On a clear night, with a pair of ten-power binoculars, the craters and highlands, the depressions and seas, appear so vividly etched, the pattern of their shadow and light so captivating, that the geography can induce a sensation of joy. The beauty of such a moment is hard to explain. It's as if beauty were not actually in the thing itself—the basalt plain, the crater—but lay instead with the viewer's capacity to appreciate that object. When a portion of the moon resolves itself sharply through the binoculars' prisms, when it comes alive to a viewer's eyes, he or she can experience a kind of euphoria, which the moon alone cannot explain. It is, for some, the thrill of being fully alive.

The world is beautiful, in many unfathomable ways. In our hurrying, though, we frequently miss what is beautiful around us, in the same way that we forget from time to time what we want our lives to mean. Just to stay afloat in the modern world, many of us reluctantly choose detachment from the constant stimulus. We even turn away from beauty, as if it were another thing we had had too much of.

Gazing at these images, I think of our habits of detachment. More than any other region of the planet, the Arctic has responded in starkly visible ways to global climate change. It is here, if you will, that a canary is singing faintly in a mine shaft. To make pictures of these places—this is my presumption—I imagine the photographer had to have been thinking about us in some way, about how we are going to fare. The images are not merely beautiful, an exoticness to admire, but an invitation to reattach ourselves to the Earth, specifically to a place that has now grown oddly poignant.

Like the moon, these landscapes appear alien and remote, exquisite but vaguely threatening. We're an integral part of them, however. The pingos and polygons, the rock circles and beaded streams, all are part of us in a way the lunar highlands and seas are not. Or, to be specific again, what's happening on the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada this spring bears more on the fate of our families than whatever might be happening in the lunar valley of Taurus-Littrow during the same weeks.
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