Imagining the Permafrost

Between the Ears, BBC Radio


The permafrost is a thriving ecosystem, teaming with life, mythology, histories and futures, hidden just below the surface. Yet unlike tropical rainforests or the deep oceans, this frozen expanse rarely appears in the cultural imagination. Curator Sophie J Williamson ventures on a journey to discover the life of the permafrost.

In -40° winter of the Canadian Yukon Valley, ancient forests, perfectly preserved by the permafrost, are uncovered by miners and 10,000-year-old grass seeds sprout into life. In the blustery remote Artic town of Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard (the world’s northernmost settlement) cryomicrobiologists drill boreholes hundreds of meters deep to explore the deepest and oldest of earthly ecologies, bringing to the surface living microbes that are hundreds of thousands of years old. And in unceded Sápmi lands of northern Finland, permafrost mounds decompose into marshy peatlands, while biologists trace the shifting bio- and geoacoustics of a changing ecology.

From the piercing-white tundra and the hundreds of thousands of lakes across the vast expanse of Siberia, indigenous folklore emerges from the unknowns of the icy underlands. And scientists in Yakutsk (the world’s coldest city), travel the icy landscapes to discover the stories secreted within the still fleshy, visceral carcasses of mammoths and ancient creatures that are exposed as the millennia-year-old ice thaws.

With contributions by Hannu Autto, Jonathan Carruthers-Jones, Tori Herridge, Karen Lloyd, Sanna Piilo, Svetlana Romanova, Nikita Tananaev, Peter von Tiesenhausen, and other members of Sámi, Sakha and Yukagir communities of unceded Sápmi territory and Northern Siberia who prefer not to be named.

Specially commissioned spoken word piece by Sata Taas (written and spoken by Al-Yene and Jaangy, with sound design by Karina Kazaryan aka KP Transmission)

With excerpts of Jana Winderen’s ‘Energy Field’, ‘Listening Through the Dead Zones’ and ‘Pasvikdalen’. Published by Touch Music.

Recorded and curated by Sophie J Williamson
Sound design by Rob Mackay
Produced by Mark Rickards

A Whistledown Scotland Production for BBC 3

Imagining the Permafrost is part of the wider arts programme, Undead Matter. Follow on Instagram @undead_matter