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Natural Cold Storage: Encyclopedia Arctica 2a: Permafrost-Engineering
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Natural Cold Storage

EA-I. (Vilhjalmur Stefansson)

NATURAL COLD STORAGE

Introduction
When permafrost first came to the attention of scientific agricul–
turists and engineers, it struck most of them as an unmitigated evil.
Gradually they have been discovering mitigating features. To the agri–
culturist, the chief credit item so far is that the prevention of under–
ground drainage enables crops to get along with less rainfall; to the
engineer, the largest patch of silver lining is in the field of cold storage.
From time immemorial our ancestors made use of the relative chill of
the ground to preserve longer than otherwise whatever tends to spoil through
heat. We kept milk in the cellar to delay its getting sour, and potatoes,
there or in outdoor pits called root cellars, to slow up their spouting.
Northerly cellars worked better than those farther south, because they were
cooler. We increased cellar efficiency by stored ice, or used this in
separate buildings, our ice houses. But such methods did not permit the
storage of fresh meat beyond days or, at the most, weeks. Near-perfect
meat preservation by cold, through long periods, was feasible only during
winter and so only in countries that had them long and cold enough. Then
came preservation by artificial freezing through methods involving salt and
ice, ammonia, and the like.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Meantime, Nature had developed better methods of underground storage
than the Europeans, but not to the knowledge of western Europe; for eternally
frozen subsoil was unknown, or at least unnoticed, farther west than Finland.
Even in European Russia there was little understanding of permanent ground
frost, since the condition is not found there except within narrow limits.
And only when she is using permanently frozen subsoil does Nature excel
the Egyptians in the preservation of normally unstable things such as animal
tissue. Successful rivalry by a glacier would seem possible, in countries
like Switzerland; but glaciers move, and different parts of them at different
rates, with resulting dislocations and breakages as well as transport of the
stored object from one place to another. In contrast, permafrost stays put
unless disturbed by earthquake or destroyed by melting.
Permafrost . What used to be called permanently frozen ground, or
eternally frozen subsoil, is now referred to as permafrost. The term was
coined by Professor Siemon W. Muller of the Department of Geology, Stanford
University, during World War II, when he was the leading specialist in this
branch for the U.S. Army engineers. (see his book Permafrost , Ann Arbor, Mick., Edwards, 1947.) Up to that time little attention had
been paid to “eternal” ground frost by North American or West European re–
search institutions, though considerable beginnings had been made by Russia
even before the Bolshevik revolution, followed by notable progress in the
U.S.S.R. (see historical article on Permafrost Studies).
The word permafrost is used to describe earth which remains frozen
throughout the longest and hottest summer. (Temperatures — extreme maxima —
above 100° F. in the shade occur in permafrost country, running in some places
up to 105° in the shade.) It is estimated that the Soviet Union is more than
45% underlain by permafrost, Canada more than 60%, Alaska more than 80%. This
will indicate that non European mankind has had considerable opportunity for

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

using this reserve of chill for refrigeration purposes, but there appears
to have been little or no deliberate use of this resource . However, unin–
tentional preservation of corpses though permafrost refrigeration took
place here and there, and corresponding preservation of animals has been
frequent, the best known of which are those of a prehistoric elephant,
the mammoth.
That recent European man, as colonist in North American and Siberia,
has had considerable opportunity to capitalize on natural refrigeration
appears when we plot on a map of the northern hemisphere the locations of
southerly permafrost outposts. In North America, permafrost has been reported
from New Hampshire, from the southern boundary of western Ontario, and from
northern Minnesota. In high mountains it ranges farther south. As for
Eurasia, the southern boundary of lowland permafrost is far more northerly
than this in Europe but a good deal more southerly in Asia. We direct the
reader to other articles in this Encyclopedia for a proper discussion, but
mention here that, instead of being a heritage from glaciers, of one or
another of the ice ages, the permafrost areas seem to correspond more nearly
to regions that were never glaciated, or at least not in the most recent
ice age. For instance, the northern Alaska flat land does not seem ever to
have been glaciated, and it is just here that we have the greatest depth of
permafrost so far reported in North America, more than 1,000 feet. To judge
from the vegetation found in the stomach e s of grazing animals which have been
frost-preserved, the climage of northern Siberia and Alaska must have been
about the same when caribou and elephants grazed there together as it is now
when only the caribou survives.
In spite of the hot summers of decades, centuries, and millenniums,

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

that have intervened since the last elephant died, the flesh of these
extinct beasts has been preserved to our time as fresh meat.
Frost Preservation of Animals
The animals most frequently reported as preserved in hair, skin,
flesh and even in the identifiable character of plants found in their stomachs,
are elephants; but we have the flesh and skin of several others, among them
rhinoceros, camel, and horse — including native American horses that became
extinct throughout the New World before Europeans began their western coloni–
zation.
The best-preserved elephants so far reported have been dug up and
exposed to view by meandering rivers. This has occurred where the stream
is undercutting a steep bank, where the face of the cliff is turning into
mud and sloughing away under the combined influence of warm summer wind and
direct sun. For the cliff is permafrost, a mud frozen thousands of years ago
which never since then has thawed enough to permit the water to drain out.
As the stream and the sun work away, to thaw and undercut, the observer
may note an elephant’s leg, tail, tusk, or trunk that begins to stick out of
the bank. But an observer is not likely to be present, and scientists usually
find the carcass deplorably late, when its thawed meat has rotted enough
to attract, again deplorably, the attention of carnivorous beasts and
scavengers, which, in turn, draw the notice of the traveler. Still it has
happened that public-spirited men have found carcasses so nearly at the
beginning of their exhumation that specimens are now available in museums,
dressed in nearly or quite the whole of their own skins, with some of their
own hair still in place. (See article on the mammoth.)
We are here concerned chiefly with the manner of preservation, and so
take our cue for the explanation from our river; for it seems clear that the

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

stream which is now digging the beast out is the same force that buried him,
perhaps before, though perhaps after, what we think of as the age of the
Pyramids, when Pharaohs were being mummified in Egypt. In that ancient
time our river was meandering as now, but in the opposite direction. Our
elephant, if he is one of those with undigested food in his stomach, may have
fallen over the cliff to his death. Since he has been so well preserved, we
infer that he took his tumble in the late fall or early winter while the
snow was not as yet deep in the lea of the cliff. But during the winter
the blizzards covered him feet and yards deep in snow.
Before this snowdrift thawed next spring, the black cliff face above the
dead elephant crumbled under the spring thaw, perhaps because there was in
it a frost crack parallel to the bank. Had the river been meandering toward
the cliff, the stream would have melted the snow, washed away the mud, and
carried the rotting carcass down stream. But the direction of meander, at
that time, evidently was away from the elephant’s burial mound; evidently
the mud and snow over him were thick enough so the frost cover did not melt
wholly away during that summer. The next and following years the same thing
was repeated. The stream meandered farther and farther away, while the earth
built itself up above the frozen carcass after the well-known growth principles
that apply in such geological positions. For one or five thousands of years,
perhaps ten or twenty or even a hundred thousand, the air and the heat of
summer were kept away by the deep ground cover.
Finally, after milleniums, our river comes back on a return meander
and digs up the elephant it helped to bury, showing him to us practically
as he was when he died (if we are lucky enough to be at the right spot on
the right day when the right amount of understanding to grasp what we have

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

a chance to see).
Rivers dig up for us the highest percentage of beasts that have been
preserved from remote times with the meat still fresh (or at least eaten
by and wholesome to dog). Seaside cutbanks, thawed by waves, are next most
prolific. Of engineering works, hydraulic gold operations, are likeliest
to discover frozen elephants. In the Alaska gold workings, the long watches
are occasionally repaid by the discovery of some piece of a mammoth, camel,
horse, or buffalo rolling down the slope with a bit of meat and skin attached.
A collection of such may be viewed at the American Museum of Natural History,
where they keep the meat frozen as it was when it came to New York by airplane
from Alaska.
Introducing the Mammoth to Europe . Credit for introducing the frost–
preserved mammoth to the knowledge of western Europe should perhaps go to
Nicolas Witsen when he published at Amsterdam, in 1692, his Noord en Oost
Tartaryen and reported what the Russians in their European cities had told
him about Siberia. The credit is usually given, however, to Ever e t Ysbrants
Ides, who wrote a more circumstantial account and based it upon his own
travels in the region of the mammoth, including the valleys of both the
Yenisei and the Lena. He visited “Russia, Siberia, Great Tartary, and China”
between 1692 and 1695, and published at Ameterdam, in 1704, his Driejaarige
Reize Naar China , where he says on page 31 :
“Not far from here” ( [ at Makov a s k north of the river Ket, confluent of
the Ob, whence Ysbran d ts continued to the Yenisei ) ] in the mountains to the
northeast, men find mammoth tusks and bones; they are found in particular on
the rivers Jenize, Trugan, Mongamsea, on the River Lena, and near Jakutskoi
up to the Icy Sea: so that when the ice breaks up on these rivers in the spring,

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

the ice and the heavily swollen waters wash off parts of the high banks
and cause large pieces of earth to come down. There are then revealed in
the nearly totally frozen ground as it slowly thaws whole animals, likewise
bare tusks. I had a person with me on my way to China who went up every
year to search for such bones; he assured me that he and his companions
once found the head of an animal which appeared in one of such washed-up
frozen banks. When they laid it bare, they found the flesh mostly rotten;
the tusks, which like those of the elephant protrude from the mouth, were
easily extracted, likewise some of the bones of the head; they finally got
down to one of the frozen feet which they hewed off and took to the city
of Trugan ( [ Tur n u khansk ) ] , and which was as thick as a moderately fat man is
around the middle. There was a bit of red on the bones of the neck, as if
it had been blood.”
Perhaps because stories of blood still red in prehistoric animals
resembled too closely travelers’ takes like those of Mandeville, which western
Europe was learning to disbelieve, the Witsen and Ysbrants stories apparently
failed to make on western Europe an impression both widespread and realistic;
a really vivid impression may not have been created until P. S. Pallas
when he published at St. Petersburg, in 1771, his De reliquiis animalium
exoticorum per Asiam borealem repertis complementum (Novi commentarii Acad.
Sc. Petropolitanae, XVII, pro anno 1772, p. 576).
The Bereskova Beresovka Mammoth . The classic example of Siberian discoveries,
says Dr. Harold E. Anthony in Natural History for September 1949, “is the
Beresovka Mammoth found on the Beresovka River, a tributary of the Kolyma.
This was apparently an entire specimen of the Woolly Mammoth when first
found in August, 1900, by a native. He was led to the spot by his dog,

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

which was attracted by the odor of what was to it edible flesh. Wolves
had already been working on the carcass. Not until September, 1901, did
a competent scientist reach the spot...
“A broken foreleg and fractured pelvis indicated and accident, such as
a heavy fall. This was a sudden event, for there was half-chewed food in
the mouth... The time of the accident was late summer or early fall, be–
cause the grasses in the stomach had seeds on them... It was mounted and
placed in the muse m um of the St. Petersburg ( [ now Leningrad ) ] Academy of
Science, posed in the attitude in which it had been found,” which is that of
an animal not instantly killed by the fall but unable to stand erect because
of the broken hip and leg.
Until recently, all the best-preserved elephants have been found in the
Old World. Dr. Anthony, in the quoted article, says that the “record for
arctic America does not approach that of Siberia. In 1929, Tolmachoff
reported no less than 34 frozen mammoth carcasses known to him. It is possible,
however, that Alaska’s score may rise in future years.” Most of the remains
found there have been uncovered in hydraulic gold mining; but this is carried
out mostly in the forested parts of Alaska, and the mammoth, though he entered
the forests and no doubt secured his food in their glades, was essentially a
prairie animal, to be found chiefly on the grasslands and in the northern edges
of the woods.
The Siberians travel their arctic rivers more than the Canadians and
Alaskans do, and so have a better chance to discover emerging mammoth, for it is
under river cut-banks that preservation conditions were best. But, with
dozens of finds in Siberia, the chances were that at least a few would show
in Alaska, and some of these are already coming through.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

In the first years of the century, a fairly well-preserved specimen
was evidently washed out at Elephant Point, Kotzebue Sound, for L. S.
Quackenbush, in 1907, discovered bones which still had on them some flesh
and tendons, and there was one reasonably well-preserved piece, the end of
the tail with hide and hair (so the creature see i mingly emerged from the
frozen mud head first when he was being washed out). This was an histori–
cally appropriate place, for the Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue, first
known European visitor, reported elephant remains from Kotzebue Sound in
1816, to be confirmed ten years later by the British expedition under
F. W. Beechey. Neither expedition reported seeing mammoth flesh, but
Kotzebue noted “a strong smell, like that of burnt horn” and Beechey “a dis–
agreeable smell similar to that which was supposed to proceed from the de–
cayed animal substances in the cliff near Elephant Point.”
Alaska’s Baby Mammoth. From 1692, when Ysbrante reported dogs eating finds of
mammoth flesh near Makevsk in Siberiain the Yenisei valley, it was 156 years until enough mammoth
to make a meal for a dog reported from the vicinity of Fairbanks in the Yukon
valley of Alaska. The best so far, of the expected Alaska finds, resulted
from the sluicing of a cliff of frozen mud in the central part of the Yukon
basin, where the forest now is interrupted here and there by grass patches
and brush glades, as it doubtless was in the time of the elephants. We
abridge the story from M D r. Anthony’s cited article:
“The latest find to qualify as mammoth in the flesh really brings us
face to face with the animal. This specimen is the skin covering the face
and one forelimb and also the trunk. The animal was a baby in its first year
and was washed out of the muck on Fairbanks Creek, August 28, 1948, by the
Fairbanks Exploration Company.”

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

The estimated weight of the creature in life was 200 pounds, estimated
age about 5 months. “This mammoth skin had some flesh and connective tissue
adhering to it, but the skull and limb bones had dropped away... The skin
and trunk were embalmed, sent by air express to the American Museum, and
stored in a cool place. On June 14, the special exhibit featuring this
material and a few other samples of Alaska’s Pleistocene fauna was opened
to the public in the 77th Street Foyer. The baby mammoth was placed in a
Home Freezer and kept at a low temperature, which simulated the condition
under which it had been preserved for so many years.
“How long the creature may have been preserved in nature’s deep freeze
is a matter of conjecture at best, but the evidence permits us to set limits
within which the baby mommoth must have had its day on earth. A conservative
estimate places the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth at some 15,000 years ago.
But this species first appears well back in Pleistocene time, and its sojourn
in Alaska is measured in the hundreds of thousand of years. With the mammoth
parade passing across the Alaskan stage for so many years, it is not easy to
say just when one animal dropped out, particularly if it came from an undisclosed
site in the muck and was discovered with other debris at the foot of the bank.
Certainly thousands of years have passed sinc d e the baby mammoth lived and
breathed, perhaps tens of thousands, possible a hundred thousand years or more.
“... Prior to the discovery of the baby mammoth, the Museum had received
from the Fairbanks muck the following speciments showing skin and hair: the
foot of a horse, the foot of the super-bison, the foot of a young mammoth with
long reddish hair, and nearly the entire carcass of an extinct musk ox. This
material was dry and hard, and it would be misleading to describe it as in the
flesh . It may have been frozen in the muck at one stage, but if so, it dried
out as soon as it thawed.”

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Frost Preservation of Humans
In Greenland . The European colony which was planted on the west coast
of Greenland, in and following 986, accepted Christianity during and imme–
diately following the year 1000, and therewith Christian burial customs,
which were only a slight modification of the previous heathen ones. Since
moderately deep burial is the usual Christian way, we would have expected
frost preservation of the bodies, and we still hope to fin e d some in Greenland
in at least fair condition. But many things worked hindrance, among them the
idea that salvation would not be possible unless a priest officiated, for
which reason the corpses of those who died in winter were usually kept un–
buried til l summer, when the priest could visit the district. Besides, even
if a priest were in residence, it was considered that the ceremony of burial
should await the possibility of actual burial, meaning early summer when the
ground had thawed enough to permit digging; but during this wait the body
would start decaying.
The churchyards of Greenland, though they have not yet revealed anything
to compete with the best Egyptian mummies, have at least preserved medieval
European clothing to an extent for which scholars are thankful. For there
are certain medieval European clothing fashions that are known to modern
Europe itself only through paintings, sculpture, wood carving, and tapestry,
but which exist in condition suitable for museum exhibit from Greenland.
In many Greenland burials we find no better preservation than typical
for Europe, meaning skeletons only. The exceptional graves which there
preserved the costumes of the European Middle Ages were apparently not so
much deeper than the rest as dug in more fortunate locations. No doubt the
original covering of earth was so thin that during the first few years the

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

body thawed out completely in early summer and remained thawed long enough
for moderately rapid decay. But the deepest thaw occurred while the new
earth over the grave was black and thus absorbent of the direct rays of
the sun. Next year there would be some grass, the year after still more;
and grass is, next to moss, the best friend of permafrost, the most success–
ful apponent of the deep thaw. In some cases the grass on the grave would
capture dust blown by the wind, to thicken the earth-covering over the body,
making the period of its summer thaw still shorter. Eventually the burial
would get to be, in effect, a deep one; deep enough so that the clothes,
wrapping their skeleton, no longer thawed out. Thus were the woolens pre–
served, some of them in such good condition that they could be cleaned and
worn, had there been among the archeologists who discovered them any who
wanted to do so.
In Siberia . An early, if not the first, printed reference to the now
famous pit tombs of the Altai is in a book published in German at Stockholm
by a Swede who, as Philip p Tabbert, had been captured by the Russians at the
battle of Poltava in 1709, to become one of many Swedish officers sent into
exile to remote parts of Siberia. This book is Das Nord- und o O stliche Theil
von Europ e a und Asia ; it appeared in English translation at London during
1738 as An Histori al co -Geographical Description of the North and Eastern
Parts of Europe and Asia . Both editions are signed by Philipp Johan n von
Strahlenberg, which was the name Tabbert assumed after his return to Europe
under a general amnesty. Apparently some time between 1719 and 172 9 2 ,
Tabbert-Strahlenberg visited that part of the Altai mountain region, between
latitudes of 52° and 54° N., whence the newspapers two centuries later
reported the discovery of bodies perfectly preserved by frost; but he could [Newspaper clipping]

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

not discover this remarkable fact because he was there only in winter.
He writes, as given in the 1738 English edition:
“These graves are so deep in the ground that, looking down, they
appeared to me as of great depth, as if I had looked down from the top of
a high house to the bottom of the lowest cellar. Had it not been winter
and so excessively cold and full of snow, at the time when I visited this
place, I should have adventured to have been let down into one of these pits.”
That the graves have ice throughout the summer and contain frost-preserved
corpses may not have been reported in print before 1856. At any rate, that
is the first such date mentioned by M. P. Griaznov in his article, “The Tombs
of the Noblemen of Pazyryk,” which appeared in the Moscow journal Chelovak
( Man ) in 1928; Griaznov discussed the subject further the next year in Priroda
( Nature ). Typically, he says, there was a pit 20 feet on each side and
20 feet deep. The bodies of the dead, sacrificed horses, and articles of
value, had been placed in the pit, which was then filled to the brim with
as many as 500 timbers in a single pit. On top was piled a mound of stones
100 or 150 feet in diameter and 6 or 7 feet high. It is beneath such accumu–
lations that “perfectly preserved” human bodies have been discovered, frozen.
As discussed hereinafter, under “Principles of Natural Cold Storage,”
a deep pit sunk into the earth just outside the normal limit of permafrost,
will develop its own permafrost area, in and immediately surrounding the pit.
A discussion of how the “noblemen of Pazyryk” were frost-preserved to
our time is found in General Permafrostology by M. L. Sumgin and others,
Moscow, 1940. In the chapter “Origin of Permafrost,” V. F. Tumel first points
out that permafrost is not general in the region of the Pazyryk burials but is
found only in and just around each pit. Then he says:

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

“The archeologists have established that, despite their heavy construction,
these graves were plundered soon after interment took place. In order to
get at the rich store of implements and ornaments, the thieves had to sink
shafts through the timber structure. It was through these shafts, according
to Griaznov, that cold air penetrated into the given grave the following
winter, froze the corpses, and steadily built up a permafrost layers.”
Tumel does not date the Altai grave finds; but a time estimate with
added detail of other sorts, has resulted from further Altai field studies
and further laboratory research.
A United Press dispatch from Moscow in the Chicago Daily News for Decem–
ber 15, 1947, tells that “A Soviet archaeological party has reported the
discovery of a 2,000-year-old natural Icebox tomb in Siberia in which they
found the nearly perfectly preserved bodies of a beautiful young girl and a
young man. Food, particularly cheese, was so well preserved that it could be
eaten by members of the excavation party, they reported.”
On January 7, 1950, the New York Herald Tribune , again through the United
Press from Moscow, brought the results of continued Soviet study. The find
was now given as 500 years older, dated at 2,500 years ago; it was said an
additional number of the Altai graves had been opened, and the persons involved
were now referred to as princess and princesses; the conditions of preserva–
tion were called those of permafrost, and the story now centered not so much
on the perfection of body preservation as on that of the rugs in which some
of them had been wrapped. The newspaper Evening Moscow is quoted:
“One of the two rugs discovered is as fine an example of the rug-maker’s
art as the best Persian rugs known, and perfectly preserved.” Farther on the
story describeds the rug as “four by six meters. It depicts a divine being

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

sitting on a throne with a tree in his hands. The other rug, also in good
condition, is velvet and of extraordinary quality. Both are of many colors.”
There are further details, among them that “The tomb itself was luxuriously
appointed. The walls were covered with felt cloth on which were intertwined
pictures of griffons.” There are details of bridles, saddles, saddlecloths
made of felt, and silks embroidered with flowers and birds of paradise. The
preservation is sometimes described as perfect, again as nearly perfect. It
is said that the burial mounds are called “ N n atural ice boxes” because they
are in permafrost.
In the mentioned Permafrostology , Tumel quotes both recent Soviet and
earlier Russian authors who have described perfect, near-perfect, and good
preservation of human bodies through long periods by frost. He says that
“N. A. Menshikov reports that the undecayed bodies of Cossack contemporaries
of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great were found in the twenties of
the present century in the graves of a washed-out cemetery near the ‘Fortress’
find along the river Anadyr on the Chuk to ot sk Peninsula.” An earlier Menshikov,
Alexander, favorite of Peter the Great, was banished by Peter’s successor to
Berezov on the river Ob 63° 56′ N. Lat., 56° 03′ E. Long. and died there in
1723. Some 92 years later he was exhumed and “found in a perfect state of
preservation.”
M. I. Sumgin’s work, Permafrost Soild Soils Within the Boundaries of the U.S.S.R.
Moscow, 1937, mentions a body found well preserved in Yakutia after having
been in the grave 163 years, and another from the Olek n m a-Vitim district which
had been buried fifteen years.
In Canada . Siberia, beyond question, has to date the oldest records for
well-preserved corpses, 2,500 years. But for bodies where the precise year of

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

burial is known, frequently with the name of the person buried, the oldest
records are of British subjects who died in Canada. For, addressing the
Royal Society of Canada (their Proceedings , 1930, Section IV), W. A. Johnston
said: “It is reported that coffins containing bodies over 200 years old,
that were well preserved by being frozen, were exposed on the banks of the
river at York as a result of river erosion of the bank.”
Johnston’s reference is to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort York on
Hudson Bay, northeastern Menitoba. A more circumstantial story, but involving
a shorter burial, comes from their Fort McPherson on Peel River, which is
just to the southwest of the Mackenzie delta in extreme northwestern mainland
Canada.
“On the fifteenth day of March, 1853, Augustus Richard Peers, a fur
trader and post manager in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, departed
this life at Fort McPherson, Peel’s river, in the Mackenzie River District,
Arctic America.” Thus wrote Chief Factor Roderick MacFarlane in 1883 to
More Adey of Oxford. MacFarlane does not give details of how the body was
handled, but no doubt it was the usual procedure — the corpse was laid out in
a storeroom where it would soon freeze, to remain till the weather began to
become springlike. Then the grave would be dug by alternately building wood
fires, to melt the permafrost mud, and shoveling the mud out. Upon burial,
the coffin would have over it a good deal more earth than normally thaws in
the McPherson summer.
“In 1855 the widow married Alexander McKenzie, who succeeded Mr. Peers
at Fort McPherson,” MacFarlane relates. She worried because her former
husband did not rest in consecrated ground. “In the autumn of 1859, at the
urgent request of Mrs. McKenzie and her husband, it was decided that the long

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contemplated transfer of the remains of Mr. Peers from their place of
interment at Peel’s River to Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie should be
carried out that winter. Mr. Charles P. (now [1883] Chief Trader) Gaudet,
then in charge at Fort McPherson, agreed to convey the body by dog train
to my trade post at Fort Good Hope, a distance of three hundred miles,
while I undertook to render it at its final destination, some five hundred
miles further south. Fort McPherson is situated about one degree north of
the Arctic Circle... Frost is never present at a shallow depth beneath
the surface. On being exhumed by Mr. Gaudet, the body was found in much
the same condition it had assumed shortly after its burial.”
MacFarland was nearly or quite the foremost contributor to science in
the Hudson’s Bay Company’s nearly 300 years of far northern history. He
was cautious in words, if not given to understatement, as appears in his
numerous communications to the Smithsonian Institution and in his published
natural history writings. Perhaps it is this caution which appears in the
wording “much the same condition.” For Stefansson reports that the exhuma–
tion still remained vivid in the tradition of Fort McPherson in 1906, and
that it was then said that Mr. Peers, when exhumed after six years, “looked
as if he had died yesterday.”
Permafrost Museums and Mausoleums . In 1937, M. I. Sumgin, leader in
Soviet studies of permafrost, issued at Vladivostok his book, Permanently
Frozen Ground in the Territory of the U.S.S.R. , and in it sketched a plan for
an underground museum to frost-preserve plants and animals through centuries
and milleniums. Such a collection would have advantages beyond those of the
usual museums. It would be practicable, for instance, to freeze large
numbers of certain small animals and keep them for hundreds or thousands
of years in such condition that comparative anatomists of the future could
thaw them out as needed, say one every 10, 50, or 100 years, for dissection

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

and comparison with members of the same specie d s then currently living.
To provide the greatest permanence, an underground museum should
perhaps be located in the middle of its permafrost layer, in case a warming-up
of the climate might start a gradual thinning of the frozen strata, for the
thawing might be from inside the earth as well as from the air. These middle
depths would range down to 1,000 feet, since permafrost of more than 2,000-foot
thickness has already been determined in certain places, Even a 500-foot
depth in a 1,000-foot layer would surely promise that storage chambers and
display galleries would be available, conservatively, for tens of thousands
of years; since, volcanism apart, our geologic thinking predicates the slowness
of natural earth processes.
Such museum galleries as we are here discussing would not be deeper than
many shafts and galleries of mines that are now commercially operated, some
of them with hundreds and even thousands of workers, corresponding to the
expected sightseers and students in the proposed permafrost galleries and
research laboratories. For the preservation of some of the museum specimens,
mere refrigeration will suffice; but for others, where high fidelity is re–
quired, the further precaution of exclusion of air, by the use of sealed
caskets and rooms, would be indicated. Again, normal permafrost temperature
will generally be low enough; but temperatures can be lowered by opening the
shafts at the top during midwinter nights of low temperature, allowing the
colder air to sink down with its own greater weight, or the chilling might
be speeded up by forced draft.
This kind of museum has the prime advantage that, apart from calculated
destructive effort, nothing can go wrong with the preservation conditions.
Suppose, for instance, that the roof of the building at the top of the shaft
were destroyed, so that rain water could begin to pour down. This water

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would freeze as it trickled down along the walls, and it would not be long
until the shafts were blocked by the thickening ice, shutting out the water.
For to have the shaft remain open through the hottest summer weather would
not matter, since warm air is light and so disinclined to penetrate downward;
while the cold air below is heavy and has no tendency to flow upward. Besides,
as said, the shaft would gradually close itself by congealing any water which
flowed downward. So, were there to be the complete ruin of the city, as by
shelling or bombing and later abandonment of the site by the inhabitants,
archeologists of the future, using their regular methods, still could find
the shaft, reopen it through the sealing ice; and descen t d to the museum for
their studies.
For religious and other motives, men have tried to preserve their dead
in the nearest possible simulation of life. Best known are the mummies of
Egypt and the embalmed body of Lenin in Moscow. It is customary in many
lands to keep the ashes of the dead in the equivalent of filing cabinets.
Where permafrost chill is available, frozen bodies might be kept permanently
somewhat as they are now temporarily in morgues. Such a mortuary is both
inexpensive and permanent, in those respects quite different from institutions
that might preserve human bodies by artificial freezing, where decay would take
place if the machinery broke down or if the funds gave out by which the
preservation was endowed. As mentioned above for permafrost museums, a
catastrophe involving ruin and desertion of a city would not interfere with
human bodies would, if anything , further guarantee — a preservation that
depends on the earth’s natural cold.
The planned use of natural earth chill by our mechanized civilization
is possible not merely in those far northern regions which are as yet
uncolonized; for there is permafrost within reach of many a community which

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is already large and well known. For instance, if it were desired, a
permafrost museum or mortuary could be set up about midway between Boston
and Montreal on the slopes of Mount Washington in the state of New Hampshire,
at an altitude above the sea not greater than that of a few cities in the
western United States or of many cities in South America and Asia. And what
New Hampshire can do is possible also for most of the province of Canada,
as well as for more than three-quarters of Alaska and for nearly half of
the Soviet Union.
Frost Preservation of Perishable Foods
With all our concern for science, as promoted by museums, and for all
our preoccupation with the dead, as ministered to by sepulchers, our main
efforts of the future which relate to permafrost are likely to be directed
toward ends we look upon as more “practical,” such as the storing of perishable
foods. To the forward-looking it will appear significant, then, that vast
areas of North America and Eurasia have natural facility in the storing of
perishable foods through means that are cheap, easy, sa v f e, and permanent.
Is Permafrost Self-Limiting ? The permanence of ground frost storage
has been impugned through the contention that, since the activities of man
are necessarily accompanied by the generation of heat, as in the operation
of machinery or in the mere entra n ce of a warm-blooded creature into a
storage chamber, there is in a frequented permafrost chamber an inevitable
upsetting of the temperature balance in favor of thawing. The corollary
has been suggested that, since no conceivable method of insulation reaches
perfection, we can do no more than put off the evil day if we attempt to
use permafrost storage and desire to prolong it indefinitely. But this
reasoning is sound only within the limits of arbitrarily selected premises;

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nature insists on thrusting upon us factors which upset such conclusions.
The Natural Creation of Permafrost . If by heat we mean a temperature
above freezing, and by cold a temperature below freezing, then we may say
that we have in a difference between the behaviors of wet surface s toward heat
and cold a significant part of the explanation of how permafrost may survive,
and may even be created, in certain regions which have a climate warm enough
to show a mean annual temperature somewhat above the freezing point.
For illustrative clarification of how plus and minus temperatures may
differ in their effect upon a given surface, we might perhaps borrow from
the lore of hot deserts the most striking of widely known proofs that a
cooling instead of heating effect may be produced when a damp layer meets
a plus temperature. It has long been a common practice in deserts to carry,
exposed to the sun, water bags of such canvas that the contained water soaks through
them enough to keep them wet, and in the greatest heat it is found that the
water keeps pleasantly cool for drinking purposes. But if a like bag is hung
up when an Alaska January temperature is as much below freezing as the African
July temperature was above freezing, it is quickly apparent that the wet canvas
does not have an equal, or even remotely similar, power to resist both plus
and minus temperatures. No more does a wet turf, which is the characteristic
surface cover of most permafrost lands of the northern hemisphere.
A special guarantee, then, that the use of a given permafrost storage
chamber need not be destructive to the local permafrost is the circumstance
that, when the hot sun strikes it, a sward of damp vegetation acts as a
cooling agent, much like perspiring human skin or a set canvas bag, with
such result that a warm season long enough for the ripening of wheat on a
local field, with thaw extending down perhaps 8 or 10 feet, does not result

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in more than half a foot or a foot of thaw in an adjoining mossy or grassy
swamp. But this slight layer of damp and matted vegetation, which acts
not merely as an insulator but also as an evaporation cooler, becomes a
very good conductor as soon as it freezes, so that the thawed layer which
resulted from three or four months of summer warmth is frozen solid in three
or four autumn days.
If shade from awnings were used in summer to help out, with the further
precaution of scattering sawdust, shavings, straw, or the like, the care
taken can produce the rapid repair of a permafrost layer that may have been
impaired or even lost by some kind of mistreatment, like p l owing or drainage.
We have already referred to the creation of new permafrost in the Altai
mountains, where pits were dug twenty feet into dry ground that contained no
permafrost. Human bodies and sacrificed horses were placed at the bottom of
the pits; timbers were piled on top of them, cordwood fashion; rocks were
finally piled over and the graves left to the weather, which proceeded to
[: ] build up local permafrost centers around each burial pit. Some of these
pits have kept their dead lifelike for 2,000 or 2,500 years, testifying to
good, if not ideal, permafrost storage conditions.
Since the permafrost is found only within the pits and in the walls of
each pit, and since the evidence points to none having been there when the
pit was dug, the intrusion of human activity clearly did not have the negative
results which some have postulated, but instead the positive one of creating
a situation favorable to the development of permafrost. Now, when we know
the effect, the cause appears obvious and the result logical. Stones, we
recognize, are generally poor conductors of heat; so the direct warming effects
of the sun upon those covering the pit is not readily transmitted downward.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Heaped stones have spaces between them through which air passes readily;
but the warm air of summer being light, does not seek downward penetration,
so the winter air that was in the pit, being heavier, remains undisturbed
within the pit, below the rocks and piled logs, and in among them.
Now comes winter and the situation is reversed. The air in the pit,
though never warmed by the summer heat, quite to the thaw point, is neverthe–
less warmer than the atmosphere, thus lighter and ready to work its way
upward, permitting an exchange through the downward seeping of cold air.
The chill of this inflowing cold air is preserved in part by such freezing
as the winter temperature produce d s in the walls of the pit. With the ready
entrance of chilled air during winter, and the difficult entrance of warmed
air during summer, man has created an imbalance favorable to the development
of permafrost.
This effect, so readily noticed and clearly demonstrable in the Altai
burial pits, is more difficult to notice in ordinary wells, for the situation
is complicated by draining into them from surrounding unfrozen strata and of
a warmth which partly or wholly neutralizes the winter tendency to form ice.
Still it is common in some of the northern states and most of the Canadian
provinces, as well as in northern Eurasia, that wells outside the permafrost
belt will develop ice that persists far into the summer, in spite of the
inseeping water. Many of these wells, if the access of new water could be
prevented, would obviously keep part of their ice from one winter to the next
and would thus develop their local permafrost centers, like the Altai grave pits.
In certain caverns, where the gravity control of air is similar to that
of the grave pits, frost has been observed to persist late into the summer,
even far outside the regular permafrost territories. Some of these caverns
have ice in them the year round.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Permafrost Promotion . In the literature of Russia n before the revolution,
and particularly with the intensification of northern studies since the estab–
lishment of the Soviet Union, evidence is readily come by on both the local
decay of permafrost, as under the influence of plowing, and the local growth
of permafrost elsewhere with such activities as the building of sheds and
the grading of roads. The cited volume Permafrostology is among the works
which bring together both classes of reports. For instance, the same farm
may show both the decrease of the permafrost beneath a grain field and its
increase beneath some of the buildings.
A single farm building may be the victim of both processes at once,
finding both of them architecturally dep l orable. Its south wall may sink
because the sun strikes there with added efficiency, due to reflection from
the building that produces a deeper thaw; its north wall may be shoved up–
ward by the thrust from below of permafrost which has had an improved chance
to grow because the earth there is in the shade of the building.
Notable developments of permafrost have been reported in connection with
railway and road construction. Take, for instance, an earth grading, ten,
twenty or thirty feet high, with a correspondingly wide base, upon ground
that has permafrost lying, say, three feet beneath the sward in neighboring
territory. After a few years it will be found that form underneath the cause–
way the permafrost has worked upward not merely to take over the whole of
the three-foot previously active layer, but to thrust itself upward within
the causeway as a frozen inner ridge or core. If the grading runs roughly
north and south, this core will occupy a medium position; but, if the causeway
trends east and west, the frozen core will be found, toward the end of summer,
much closer to the northern than the southern slope of the earthwork.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Principles of Natural Cold Storage . The first principle in the appli–
cation of permafrost chill to the storage of such perishables as vegetables
and meat, is one to which we have made several references, that cold air
is heavier than warm. This means that the entrance to a permafrost storage
gallery must be downward, through a shaft, as to a mine or a city’s passenger
subway. In relation to storage, this comes natural to European thinking,
for we are used to cellars beneath houses.
It may seem that downward entrance to a permafrost chamber is in any
case necessitated by the uniform condition that we live on top of the earth
and that the frost is in the ground beneath us. However, this necessity is
not always rigorous; a hill may be so located nearby that a tunnel rounding running
into it horizontally would have its floor level with the floor of the
storage vault. Certainly this can be done; it was done, for instance, in
the northwestern Canadian Arctic by the Yankee whalers of 1889-1907, who
for meat-storage reasons tunneled horizontally into the side of the hill
back of Pauline Cove, Herschel Island. There could even be special cases
where ground-level tunneling would be advisable. But the vertical shaft is
normally preferable; for the horizontal ones need a series of doors which,
during the summer operation, have to be opened one at a time to prevent the
outrush of cold air along the floor of the tunnel and a corresponding inrush
of warm air along its roof. To construct this series of doors and to look
after them, is a bother.
The chief trouble s w ith a series of doors in a horizontal tunnel would
come if it were desired to place in storage a large quantity of perishables
on a very hot day. The doors would have to be opened frequently; or they
would all remain steadily open for hours, while the supplies were being

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

brought in. this would permit the entrance of so much warm air that the
permafrost nature of the hill would soon be destroyed. Instead of hoar–
frost forming on walls from such slight warmth as that of unfrozen
vegetables or the heat of the bodies of workmen — instead of this, the
walls would now “sweat” and they would begin to slough into Mud, to cover
the floor and run out through the tunnel.
By contrast, taking goods up and down through a shaft by elevator
causes but a slight interchange of the warm upper with the cold lower air —
slight because of the gravity differential. There will be, of course, a small
interchange on the principle of the diffusion of gases, and tiny amounts of
warm air will get carried down inside packages and along with a descending
elevator.
It has been found with small-scale storage that the natural chill of
permafrost refrigeration, derived from walls, floors, and ceilings of shafts
and storage chambers, is cold enough to preserve meat from year to year, even
through warm summers that are nearly as long as the cold winters. The most
obvious reason is, of course, that some air comes in each winter that is
colder than the permafrost. This enters most rapidly when elevators are
going up and down a shaft, for to an extent they act as pumps; but since
air is the heavier the colder it is, the outdoor air will in any case squeeze
down a shaft every chance it gets. However, it is undoubtedly sound policy
for a large underground storehouse to force cold air down and circulate it
during the whole of the very cold part of winter, so as to store up addi–
tional chill in the walls of shafts and galleries by deliberately lowering
the temperature of the surrounding earth.
It is desirable that underground storage chambers be hollowed out from

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

material that is a good head conductor, such as ground ice or mud. It
has been reported that some storehouses in Siberia, or at least their
shafts, are in very dry earth. The first worry then is that the dust
from such walls may get on meat and vegetables that are being store s d ;
normally this is not serious, for the body heat of personnel, and warmth
from unfrozen materials being stored, will produce a clean hoarfrost
cover on the walls. A more serious trouble is that, if the walls are dry
earth, rock, or other poor conductor, there is danger that the warmth from
the workmen and the unfrozen food may be enough to bring the temperature
of the walls to the freezing point, whereupon the hoarfrost on the walls
may begin to melt, with mud soon flowing and the storehouse becoming
useless until the next winter comes with its renewed chill. Trouble of
this kind is, however, seldom reported. For one thing, constructors of
permafrost refrigerators try to select ground that contains ice and mud,
on the mere strength of knowing they are easier to work than rock and dry
ground.
Some permafrost vaults, after years of perfect functioning as store–
houses for meat, become infected with fungi and molds. These have not
proved hard to get rid of. Charles D. Brower, who for fifty years used
a storage chamber at Cape Smythe, Alaska, (near Point Barro s w ) did not have
this trouble the first three decades or more. When it did develop, he
temporarily removed all meat, chipped away much of the accumulated
hoarfrost, and then fumigated with sulphur smoke. He did not keep a record
of temperatures but though the shaft was getting less cold; he blamed this;
and the accompanying growth of mold, upon the advance of the sea, which
was chewing up the coast in the vicinity, a thaw of the ground advancing

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

some distance ahead of the water. Eventually this shaft thawed out com–
pletely, the sea having come too close.
Some users have considered it advisable to freeze meats before they are
placed in permafrost chambers. The Lomen Corporation, the largest Alaska
users of natural cold storage and pioneers is its commercial use, arranged
their reindeer butchering so that the autumn weather was already cold
enough to freeze the meat before it was stacked in the refrigerator bins.
In the Soviet Union it is reported to be a common practice to freeze the
meat, either through the weather or through artificial freezing, and then
to dip each piece in ice water, to glaze them before they are stacked in
the permafrost chambers. However, excellent results have been secured in
other cases by bringing in warm meat and letting it freeze, suspended
from hooks, before it is stacked. This, however, increases rapidly the
hoarfrosting of walls and ceilings.
Analogizing from what they are used to, Europeans have sometimes
arranged ventilating systems for permafrost refrigerators. There is, of
course, the mentioned advantage that by means of forced ventilation it is
possible, in very cold weather, to bring in more of the atmospheric chill
to lower the temperature of the permafrost walls, with an effect on them
which lasts throughout the next summer. Bu the heavy use of forced
ventilation in summer will naturally destroy the freezer value of the
permafrost walls, turning them into m i u d.
“Practical” Development Tardy . Positive approach to below-freezing
temperatures, thinking of how to utilize them rather than how to counteract
them, was in Europe slow, even among the philosophical thinkers. For instance,
Robert Boyle, English pioneer in chemistry and a leader in the founding of

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

the Royal Society, was much impressed with whatever information on cold he
was able to get from arctic travelers, particularly with what he got from
that Thomas James for whom James Bay was named after he wintered there
in 1631-32). Seemingly, low temperatures were to Captain James chiefly
a hateful nuisance, nor does Boyle’s point of view differ much; anyway,
the writings of Boyle, which translate some of the James observations into
scientific terms, fail to suggest the practical use of ground chill in the
over-summer storage of perishables, such as of meat.
One of the northern travelers to be honored, and deservedly, by
election to the Royal Society was Christopher Middleton, who drew upon his
wintering experience for the paper, “Account of the Extraordinary Degree
and Surprizing Effects of Cold in Hudson’s Bay, North America,” which he
read before the Society on October 28, 1742, and for which he received the
Copley Medal. This paper does consider the preservative value of cold
weather, for Captain Middleton says that “Beef, Pork, Mutton, and Venison,
that are killed at the beginning of the winter, are preserved by the Frost,
for six or seven months, intirely free from Putrefaction.” He studied also
the condition of the ground: “The Frost is never out of the Ground, how deep
we cannot be certain. We have dug down 10 or 12 Feet, and found the Earth
hard frozen in the two summer months.” But he makes no suggestion about
how this natural winter cold storage, which he reckons at six or seven months,
could be prolonged to cover the other five or six months, including the
“two Summer Months,” by making a storage chamber at the bottom of such a
pit as he had dug to probe the earth for its temperature secrets.
So far as the thinkers got away from the “too bad” idea about the frost,
it was chiefly along the line of gratification over the scientific good
fortune that, whereas other sorts of earth preserve little except things
like bone or shell for the paleontologists to work upon, there is in cold

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climates the additional possibility that soft parts may be preserved.
Trust Darwin to be among those who realized this advantage. His Journal
of Researches (London, 1860) speaks of Kendall’s finding on Deception
Island, the South Shetlands, of the “body of a foreign sailor which had
long been buried, with the flesh and all the features perfectly preserved”;
and he was evidently in the scientific mood to think fortunate such results
of the climate. There are many like references and implications in popular
and scientific literature; but, in the English branch of it at least, sug–
gestions which might lead to systematic use on a commercial or even a
householding scale must be rare, for we have not come upon them.
Native Use of Permafrost Storage . It is not clear whether non - Europeans
in the Arctic formerly utilized the chill of the ground for such effective
refrigeration that meat remained taintless from one year to the next. Some
Europeans have said that the natives did so in northern Siberia; others
have reported from the same districts that the local custom was merely to
dig down to the permanent frost, pile unfrozen meat into shallow pits and
cover with earth, these reports saying that the method resulted only in
retardation of decay; others have specified that when these burials took
place in winter the meat had to be dug up early the next summer or it would
be tainted. Stefansson tried to investigate in northwestern Arctic Canada
and northern Alaska, and found evidence only of such burials as permitted
the meat to decay slowly during summer. So far as he could learn, the idea
that meat could be kept for several years without becoming tainted was
derived in Alaska by the Eskimos of his time (1906-18) from the freezing
shaft dug by the U.S. Army’s expedition of 1881- 2 8 3, as told below. The
expedition sank the shaft for ther o mometric studies of underground temperature;

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its use as a refrigerator seems to have been an afterthought.
Pioneering in Natural Cold Storage
Although the possibilities of the use of ground chill for year-to-year
refrigeration were apparently first suggested from northern Siberia, the
large-scale pioneering does not seem to have been there. A. M. Chekotillo,
in his 1946 paper that will be cited hereafter, says: “The need for cold
storage places during the warm part of the year is acute even in the northern
regions ( [ of the Soviet Union] ) ] . Actually, however, the permanently frozen
ground has been utilized for cold storage to an insignificant degree,”
until just recently.
It may be that be first definite suggestion for large-scale use by
whites was made by the New England zoologist, William Healy Dall, in his
Alaska and its Resources , Boston, 1870: According to that book, he wrote
in his diary on November 14, 1866: “I cannot understand why Kane and other
Arctic travelers could not preserve fresh provisions in a frozen state for
winter use. In this country (W [w estern Alaska ) ] immense quantities of meat
and fish are preserved without taint the year around. Excavations are
made in the earth to the depth of two or three feet, where it is usually
frozen, and the contents are thus protected.” (But note what we said, above,
about this kind of shallow storage retarding rather than preventing decay.)
From the summer of 1881 to the summer of 1883 Lieutenant Patrick Henry
Ray, U.S. Army, commanded a scientific expedition in northernmost Alaska.
Ray says, on page 24 of his Report of the International Polar Expedition
to Point Barrow, Alaska , Washington, 1883:
“In January, 1882, work was commenced on a shaft for the purpose of
getting the temperature of the earth. . . . The formation for the whole

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distance was sand and gravel, mingled with a deposit of drift-wood and
marine shells, showing that each stratum represented the successive lines of
ancient sea-shores. The earth was saturated with water. At a depth of
thirty-five feet a deposit was found of clear water, unmixed with earth, too
salt to be congealed at a temperature of + 12, which was the unvarying tem–
perature of the earth at this depth.
“At a depth of twenty feet a tunnel was run to the east a distance of
ten feet, and at the end of it a room ten by twelve was excavated out of
the hard frozen ground. In this the temperature never rose above 22°.
The walls were always dry and free from moisture, and the accumulation of
hoar frost was very light. Here we stored whatever fresh meat, in the way
of ducks, reindeer, walrus, or seal, that we were able to accumulate beyond
our daily consumption. Our main supply was eider-ducks, which, during the
spring flight in May, were easily killed. We took four hundred in 1882, and
five hundred in 1883; we found them excellent food, and when stored in the
subterranean store-house they were at once frozen solid, and would keep for
any length of time.”
Ray was believer in the importance of fresh local foods for the health
of his men, so the permafrost storage seemed to him important. In that con–
nection he says: “Fresh meat is the great safeguard against scurvy in this
region; I never saw a trace of it among the natives, and meat is their only
food. The immunity of my party from all disease or sickness of any kind I
deemed was owing to the fact that through our own exertions, and with some
assistance from the natives, we were seldom without it.”
Among northern travelers Ray was one of only a small number who have
pointed out in books the specific value of fresh meat as an antiscorbutic : ;

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but nearly or quite all book-writing explorers, whalters, and northern
traders are on record as believers in fresh meat as an important part of
the diet, conducive to general health. Charles D. Brower, Ray’s successor
at Point Barrow (really Cape Smythe), was no exception; so he took over the
use of the Army’s permafrost refrigerating gallery when he settled there in
1884.
Missionary activities of the Moravian church were extended to north–
western Alaska in the eighties. They were active in getting native villages
throughout western and northern Alaska to take up the use of deep-storage
galleries, similar to Ray’s , to replace what had been their way of burying
meat above the permafrost (which gave no better results than the ice houses
of our ancestors). The largest share of individual credit for bringing the
new storage method into local Eskimo use should no doubt go to the Reverend
John Henry Kilbuck, an Indian in Moravian service (Delaware on his paternal
side, Mohican on his mother’s), who came to the village of Bethel on the
Kuskwokwim in 1884 but apparently did not begin to use of advocate permafrost
storage until later, when he learned of the Barrow v s uccess. According to
Moravian informants, “it was through his ( [ Kilbuck’s ) ] efforts . . . that
under-surface refrigeration of g f oods became the rule in native villages,
where before the provisions of food had been stored above ground” — i.e.,
above the permafrost, in shallow pits, the meat covered with grass and earth.
The first commercial need for large-scale storage in the permafrost
country developed from that temporarily fabulous growth of the Alaska
reindee d r industry which is described elsewhere in this Encyclopedia through
a special article and through the biographies of a number of its key figures,
among them the missionary Sheldon Jackson and the business men Carl, Ralph,
and Alfred Lomen.

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With charity toward the Eskimos in mind, the United States Government,
through its Coast Guard service, had brought 1,280 reindeer to Alaska from
Siberia between 1892 and 1902. The animals proceeded to double in number
every three years; so that by the late 1920’s there were about a million
head belonging to Eskimos, to Laplanders who had been brought over to teach
reindeer herding, to missions, and to some private white owners as well as
stock companies, far largest of which was the Lomen Reindeer Corporation.
Not realizing that their success would arouse that hostility of U.S. cattle
and sheep men which finally ruined the Alaska reindeer industry, and dis–
counting the hostile attitude of the U.S. Government at the time, the
Lo em me ns went ahead developing a market for their products, which involved a
3,000-mile steamer shipment to Seattle (or farther, if to more southerly
coastal cities) and then rail distribution. The meat had to be delivered
to selling points in the best condition and so refrigeration became crucial.
How this led to the large-scale use of permafrost storage is described by
the President of the Lomen Reindeer Corporation, Carl J. Lomen, in the
following section of this article.
Natural Cold Storage in Alaska
Elephant Point Storage (by Carl J. Lomen). In the development of
the Alaska reindeer industry, one of the requisites was refrigeration.
Subsequent to 1915, the surplus male animals of the rapidly expanding
industry produced more meat than local markets could absorb e . Such
surplus could look to but one market and that was the United States. To
reach this market, with a product that must compete with packing house
meats, many improvements over previous Alaska practice were necessary: the
reindeer had to be scientifically butchered, the carcass neatly dressed and
properly wrapped, solidly frozen in ammonia cold-storage plants, and shipped

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

to a port in Washington, Oregon, or California.
The reindeer herds were many, each with its own grazing unit occupy–
ing much of the area of western Alaska, from the Kuskokwim River in the
south to Point Barrow, the northernmost point of Alaska, a distance up–
ward of one thousand miles. The number of deer in the combined herds
totaled approximately one million. Ten per cent of such numbers should be
available for market, each year, and the number would increase with the
further expansion of the industry, for it was estimated that the Territory
could permanently support some four million reindeer.
The first three ammonia plants constructed in the reindeer country
for the sole purpose of preserving reindeer meat, during the early 1920’s,
were small and costly. Lumber and other construction materials, the neces–
sary machinery, fuel oil, and other supplies, had to be shipped from the
States. The operating company, Lomen Reindeer Corporation, discovered that
the initial cost was $30,000.00 per plant, each with a capacity of 1,000
carcasses, weighing 150 pounds. The plants could not be filled and emptied
more than twice each year. The cost and capacity elements of refrigeration
were the great problems of the industry.
Meat animals were at their prime the first of October and the butchering
season was considered to extend from mid-September through to the first of
the year. A great obstacle was the short season of ocean navigation between
northwestern Alaska and the United States. Bering Sea ports closed November
first, while those north of Bering Strait closed several weeks earlier.
Plants not emptied in the fall of the year, prior to the close of navigation,
were forced to hold the product until the return of the steamers the following
June and July. This proved very costly, as fuel oil was the motive power

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

for the plants, which were thus forced to operate for several months
during the spring of the year. (During the winter no artificial refrigera–
tion was necessary, since winters are cold in this region.)
With an ever-increasing number of surplus animals in the rapidly
growing herds, the refrigeration problem caused the first spect o e r of doubt
to arise that the C c orporation might not be able to maintain its position
as the marketing agency for the Eskimo-owned herds as well as for the
company-owned animals. How to finance the construction of a sufficient
number of cold-storage plants throughout the reindeer country, and to operate
at an expense level that would permit the product to complete with other
meats on the American market? That was the great question. Carl, Ralph,
and Alfred Lomen, the active officers of the corporation, each had a share
in answering it.
The two largest company herds ranged in the Kotzebue-Buckland area,
north of Bering Strait. Meat animals from those herds could be driven on
the hoof across country to join up with the company herds south of the Strait
and thus be made accessible to fall steamer transportation. Some help toward
securing the equivalent of enlarged storage plants was obtained through
preparing boned products (steaks, chops, roasts and boned meats) — to save
space by eliminating the bones.
During the summer of 1919, Alfred Lomen investigated the possibilities
of natural cold storage in the valley of the Buckland River, dividing line
between the company’s Kotzebue and Buckland herds. Under a large area of
the valley lies what was then locally considered the remnant of a prehistoric
glacier, now called permafrost. Along the seashore, and in places where
streams out through, exposed permafrost melts in the summer and allows the

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

soil to slough away. Here and there is revealed a bank of several feet
of clear, solid ice topped by a layer of soil, two or three feet thick.
At one point the local Eskimo reindeermen had sunk a shaft twenty feet
deep, at the bottom of which they kept their meat during the summer months.
Alfred Lomen examined this local “refrigerator,” found it cold at the bottom,
and of sufficiently low temperature to preserve the meat through the summer
months. If a large chamber of this type could be hollowed out in the sub–
terranean ice-bed, it would prove far cheaper than any artificial cold–
storage plant. Assuredly the idea seemed feasible, be reported, but whether
it would be so on the scale required by the company could be determined
only by actual experiment.
The following summer, Carl Lomen visited the Buckland area, armed with
several tested thermometers. The meat shaft of the Eskimos was first examined.
The shaft itself was 3 by 4 feet by 20 feet in depth, with a ladder down one
side. The shaft mouth was covered by a walrus hide, to keep out rain and
dust. The open-air temperature the day of the examination was 72°F. Three
feet down the shaft the thermometer fell to less than 50° and on the bottom
the reading was 23°F.
This shaft was located at the mouth of the Buckland River, at what was
known as Igloo Point. A contract was let and the following winter a small
room 25 by 7 feet high, was chiseled out of the frozen earth, close to the
Eskimo shaft. Temperatures proved satisfactory, and meat stored in the room
continued in perfect condition through the following summer.
It is usual to prospect for gold and other precious minerals. The Lomen
Reindeer Corporation now organized a prospecting expedition to look for suitable
conditions for natural cold storage. Several factors had to be considered:

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

( 1 ) accessibility to safe anchorage for ships; ( 2 ) area suitable for large
expansion; ( 3 ) proper site, including sufficient elevation above sea level
for height of rooms plus sufficient overburden of moss and muck for pro–
tection of rooms against thawing during summer months.
Following weeks of prospecting, a location was selected at Elephant
Point, 14 miles to the westward of Igloo Point. The new location was first
visited by the Russian explorer Kotzebue in 1816, who noticed the smell of
decaying flesh. The British explorer, Captain Frederick William Beechey,
of the Royal Navy, was there in 1826, noticed the small and gave the place
its elephant name “from the bones of that animal being found near it.”
Bones of the prehistoric elephant (mammoth), ox and horse were each summer
washed out of the high banks of Elephant Point: and in the near vicinity a
mammoth, with flesh and hair, was found around 1900, proving the preserving
qualities of the frozen ground. Elephant Point is on the south shore of
Eschscholtz Bay, Kotzebue Sound.
Realizing the great advantage natural cold storage would give the
industry, the company made plans for work on a plant as soon as the winter
season opened. They thanked Mother Nature for her kindness to the Alaskans
in their reindeer business, for she not only supplied free fodder for the
animals the year round but now was also ready to furnish a refrigerating
system which would run itself and require no fuel.
A crew of thirty men, many of them seasoned gold-placer miners, expert
in such work, were engaged to carve out of the frozen hillside, with pick
and shovel, six large storage holding-rooms, with a total capacity of [: ] ten
thousand reindeer carcasses (see Fig. 1). The composition of the material
excavated was approximately 85 per cent clear ice and 15 per cent frozen
muck and gravel.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

A long tunnel was run into the frozen hillside, with a slight upgrade,
for drainage, should it be necessary. A series of room was then chiseled
out in a manner similar to a hallway with rooms on each side, except that
the partitions of frozen earth and ice were six to eight feet in thickness.
Several modern, insulated cold-storage doors were placed between the
entrance of the tunnel and the rooms, and a door placed in the entrance to
each room. Ventilation was secured by means of double pipes driven through
the roof, one just penetrating the ceiling at one end and the other reaching
close to the floor at the opposite end of the room, which would give a free
circulation of air. With open-air temperatures ranging from 55 degree s below zero
Fahrenheit in winter to 80 degrees above in summer, the temperature of these
rooms proved to vary only from 10 degrees above, to 18 degrees above, during
the twelve calendar months, thus a range from 22 degrees of frost to 14.
This kept the meat in perfect condition.
Two shafts were sunk from the surface, tapping the tunnel, one at the
extreme end of the tunnel, the other midway to the entrance. Small cabins
were constructed over the shafts and, in addition, the shafts were covered
with tight wooden lids. A wooden shed, well insulated by packed “reindeer
moss” (lichens) inside and out, was built to connect with the entrance of
the tunnel (see Fig. 2). A narrow-gauge track was laid from the beach to the far end of
the tunnel and small flatcars were used to transport the meat from storage
to scows or lighters, for transportation from the beach to the anchorage of
the ship which would carry the cargo to the States.
The Elephant Point natural cold storage plant was apparently the first
large one of its kind in the world, with six rooms of 18 by 36 feet by 7 feet
high (27, 216 cu.ft. storage capacity), and would readily lend itself to almost unlimited expansion at a
minimum cost (see Fig. 1).

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

The first winter a small butchering of about 2,000 head tested the
the plant, with satisfying results. During the second summer, water
flowed over the roof of the plant and caused small trouble, but ditches
cut to lead the water to a distance corrected the difficulty.
Following the storage of meat, hoarfrost gathered on the walls of the
rooms, as well as on the ceilings, the shimmering crystals reflecting any
light and giving a brilliant illumination from even one candle. At first the meat was stacked on
boards which were placed on the floors of the rooms, but it was noted that
dust gathered. When snow was placed on the floor, and the boards on the
snow, the difficulty was overcome.
The second year eight thousand deer were butchered and stored in the rooms, the
record butchering on one range in the history of the industry.
For fear that unusual conditions of weather might some day be encountered,
the middle room on the east side of the plant was lined and piped and a small
ammonia refrigerating plant constructed just beyond the entrance to the tunnel,
Should temperatures in the room rise to a dangerous points at any time, the
artificial plant could easily lower the temperature desired. It was never
found necessary to operate the artificial plant.
Meat hold in the rooms for three years was found to be in excellent
condition. During the winter months, the shafts and doors could be opened
and fresh air forced through the rooms. With this precaution taken in winter,
the temperatures varied but the mentioned eight degrees.
Elephant Point was a winter butchering station and summer headquarters
for the Kotzebue and Buckland herds. It was equipped with modern buildings
for the preparation of the meat and hides of the reindeer for market, such
as a large abattoir, “holding” and “bon e ing” rooms, bins for the salting

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

and stacking of hides. There was also a large corral system for the handling
of the deer, and living quarters for the crew. When the animals were butchered,
the carcasses were first hung within the holding-room of the abattoir, and
later placed in the open air, with temperatures sometimes ranging from −30°
to −50°F., until frozen solidly; then they were transferred to the natural
cold-storage rooms. It was considered that placing so much warm meat in the
storage chambers might have raised their temperature too much, causing ceiling
and walls to slough.
The construction of the natural cold-storage plant, together with the
necessary buildings, at Elephant Point, showed an initial cost of one hundred
thousand dollars; upkeep was practically nil.
Information about the recent use of natural cold storage at Point Barrow
by the U.S. Navy, in connection with operations in U.S. Naval Petroleum
Reserve No. 4, has been supplied by Commander Palmer W. Roberts, formerly
Officer in Charge.
Point Barrow Storage (by Palmer W. Roberts) . Positive flow of cold
air is maintained in cellars with vertical shafts by the gravity principle.
The greater density of the cold air results in movement downward and the
resultant remov e a l of the warmer air by circulating upward and out of the
cold storage chamber. At Point Barrow, during the summer of 1946, the U.S.
Navy found it necessary to increase the cold food storage facilities. These
were then entirely of the aboveground mechanical type. In July, an under–
ground food storage chamber was excavated in accordance with previous
experience gained by the people at Barrow Village regarding underground

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

temperatures, and excavation practices followed by drift mining operations
in Alaska.
The formation in which the excavation was made was frozen silt, fine
sand, fine gravel, and ice, which at that depth had a year-round tempera–
ture of 22°F. A shaft 8 by 8 ft. was sunk vertically to a depth of 21 st. ft.
At this level a chamber 14 ft. by 20 ft. and 9 ft. high was excavated. The
work was accomplished by thawing the material with steam points and hoisting
the muck out of the shaft with a bucket attached to a hoist line of a Trackson
tractor crane. Pillars of frozen ground were left at the shaft to support
the overlying formation. The capacity of the chamber was 2,520 cu.ft. and
the shaft 1,344 cu.ft., totaling 3,864 cu.ft. c A 3- by 4-ft. trap door was
installed over the shaft at ground level and protected so that groundwater
could not seep into the shaft.
On September 6, 1946, more than 1,500 cu.ft. of frozen boneless boxed beef,
port loins, pork ribs, chicken, turkey, liver, bacon, and butter were placed in
the chamber. Outside temperature was 28° to 35°F. The shaft was sealed and not
entered again until April 12, 1947, when the first items were withdrawn for use.
At that time the cellar temperature was 6°F. with the outside temperature 20°F.,
which indicates that the cold had penetrated into the chamber during the winter
months and had lowered the temperature of the locker below that of the sur–
rounding formation. At the time of the withdrawal, the food had been in
underground storage 7 months, was frozen solid and in good condition. All
containers were in their original state and there was no moisture or mold
present. After this withdrawal, the shaft was again sealed.
On June 13, 1947, r t he remaining food was removed. a A t the that time the cellar
temperature was 9°F. and the outside temperature 32°F. These last items had

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

been in storage for 9½ months and were completely frozen. The containers
of wood and paper were in their original state, and food products and con–
tainers showed no sign of mold, moisture, or deterioration.
In the summer of 1947, because of the success of the use of the under–
ground cold storage chamber, the capacity was increased by adding another
room at the same level (21 ft. below ground level). This additional
chamber was 18 by 20 ft. with a 9-ft. ceiling, an increase of storage capacity
of 3,564 cu.ft. The total net size of the storage chambers then because 6,084
cu.ft. These vaults, utilizing one vertical shaft 8 by 8 ft., have been in
use for the storage of frozen food for 4 years with little or no maintenance
and a minimum operating cost.
Natural Cold Storage in Arctic Canada
Yankee whalers, hailing chiefly from New Bedford and the Vineyard, spent
their first Canadian winter at Herschel Island the season of 1889-90. This
was at Sou’ West Sandspit, which was found a less desirable location than
Pauline Cove where the chief whaling center of the northwestern Canadian
Arctic was to develop, with as many as a dozen ships wintering at one time.
Some of the officers and men had done shore whaling from Cape Smythe and
Point Barrow; nearly all of them must have known, at least from hearsay,
about the U.S. Army’s permafrost storage shaft and gallery of 1882-83 and
about its continued and satisfactory use by Charles D. Brower following 1884.
So the development of this storage practice at Herschel Island was a trans–
plantation from Alaska.
The practice of using underground storage chambers spread, in turn,
from Herschel Island through northwestern arctic Canada. Among the points
where the method is used, or was used while the stations were occupied,

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

are Arctic Red River, Aklavik, Reindeer Station, Tuktuyaktok, all on or
near the Mackenzie delta; Nicholson Island (really peninsula), in Liverpool
Bay; Cape Bathurst and Langton Bay (at the head of Franklin Bay); Cape
Parry and Pearce Point, on either side of Darnley Bay; and DeSalis Bay,
southeastern Banks Island. On the withdrawal of the whaling fleet (follow–
ing the collapse of the whalebone market around 1906), some of the storage
places were adopted by Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachments, by traders,
missionaries, or Eskimos, while some have fallen into disuse. Both whites
and Eskimos have provided themselves with new ones.
The most extensive use of permafrost storage has been at Aklavik,
partly because this is the largest community in arctic Canada (population
about 200 in 1950) but more because of local enterprise. A special reason
for extensive use is the Aklavik custom of quarrying a lot of ice during early
winter and storing it in permafrost chambers for household use during the
summer. That permafrost storage has not been much practiced east of Cape
Parry is considered to be in the main because the ground is likely to be
solid rock, or at least pit digging frequently hampered by running into
a boulder.
In a personal communication, W. P. Johnston, Hudson’s Bay Company,
Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, given from personal experience an
account of how cold storage was used at one trading post:
“The staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Baillie Island post erected
an ice house for storing meat and fish at Cape Bathurst during the fall of
1928. This was built on the plan of one previously built by the whalers at
Southwest Sandspit, an old whaling winter harbour on the southwest tip of
Baillie Island. This cache being built close to the high water level was

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

demolished by repeated storms over a period of years washing out the bank . . .
“Fortunately for natural refrigeration purposes the permanent ground
ice at Cape Bathurst is to be found about twenty inches below the soil.
Along the shore this ice is constantly exposed to view, and can be clopped
out of the bank and used in an emergency for cooking.
“A shaft approximately six feet square was sunk in the ground to the
six foot level; this space was then extended on either side to form a
chamber twelve foot in diameter and eight foot from the bottom of the shaft,
making a total depth of fourteen feet from the surface. A slanting roof
was built of split drift logs, resting on the log supports of the entrance
porch. This porch was composed of an inner and outer door, and lined with
drift logs. The roof and entrance porch were then covered with two layers
of tarred paper before adding layers of sod. Each sod measured twelve inches
square and six inches thick — the entire exposed surface being covered to
a depth of two feet. Both doors were built about eight inches off the ground —
one at either end of the porch and each opening inward. As there was a slight
slope in the ground toward the rear of the building, a small drain was dug
all around, so that any moisture from spring thaw could run off. A small
ventilator with an opening three inches square was placed in the roof.
“As the ice house was used mainly for storing quantities of fish for
winter dog feed, some method had to be adopted to prevent meat and fowl
being tainted by the fish. Belaying pins from an old whaling vessel were
driven into the walls and used for hanging up fowl; openings three foot in
depth and four feet long were dug through the ice wall to hold meat for
mess use.
“The fish run at Cape Bathurst Sandspit usually comes in the latter
part of August when large quantities of California Herring are caught with

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

sweep nets (150 to 200 feet long).
“These fish were taken over to the ice house in lots of about five
hundred and spread over the floor to freeze. Two days later they were
frozen enough to be stacked like cordwood.
“Although no record was ever kept of the temperature in the ice house
it is estimated that it must have been in the region of ten degrees above
zero (Fahrenheit). During the time the writer used this ice house (four
years) there was no trouble with water seepage, although each year we had
to break off long icicles suspended from the roof, and sweep off with a
broo k m frost which was no doubt caused by our breath and from the heat of the
lamp used for illumination while we were at work.
“In the spring after all the fish had been removed, the ice floor was
chopped clean, and all dirty ice, pieces of old fish, etc. cleared away in
readiness for the new season’s fish.”
Excepting the Mackenzie delta and other river deltas, and the lowland
of Cape Bathurst, the northwestern Canadian mainland likely to be solid
rock, or at least stony ground; so excavation of permafrost storage vaults
has been found, on the average, more difficult than in Alaska, which goes
toward explaining the more limited Canadian use.
Whereas the Lomen Reindeer Corporation, and other Alaska, users, have
reported satisfactory meat storage for an indefinite number of years with
temperatures as high as only 10 degrees of frost (22°F.), the Canadian
northwest reports some cases of trouble with mold if the temperature gets
warmer than 17 degrees of frost (15°F.). But it might be noted that Brower
at Barrow, as cited, removed mold by chipping part of the hoarfrost coating
from the walls, and disinfecting chemically, thereafter having no mold
trouble for several years.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Some Canadian users report taking care to cover the ground in the
neighborhood of the mouth of the shaft with enough insulating material, such
as moss, to convert the upper, active layers, into permafrost, which end
Soviet users report attaining with awnings that keep the direct sun away.
In northwestern Canada some users have failed to take these and like pre–
cautions, with the result that thaw water and rain poured into the shafts,
with one of two results, determined by local conditions — either the shaft
thawed out and became worthless for storage purposes, or else the water froze
as it trickled down and filled the shaft with ice.
The Venerable Archdeacon D. B. Marsh, Church of England, says, on the
basis of his experience in northwestern Canada: “Over the Mission ice house
at Eskimo Point, muskeg insulation was placed around for yards and kept the
ice house completely frozen at all times of the year. The Royal Canadian
Mounted Police ice house was a failure because the walls were not insulated
and the heat and water got in. At Aklavik the ice house (Anglican Mission)
was dug out at the bottom of a long shaft and … in the hot t est months every–
thing froze.”
In Alaska, perhaps because many of the people there are miners, or
engineers trained under temperate zone and tropic conditions, the reports
often have it that the entrance of water into permafrost shafts is prevented
by the use of drainage ditches. Instead of ditching, the Canadians (and,
apparently, the Siberians) have generally adopted the native method; for a
Canadian Department of Defence summary has it that “care must always be
taken to ensure that the entrance to cold storage rooms is higher than the
surrounding ground, to prevent seepage of water into the underground chamber.”
A summary by the Defence Research Board of Canada says: “The ice cedlars

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

of Aklavik were first dug in order to provide storage for winter ice which
was then used as a source of drinking water during summer. As the resident
population increased, the need for additional space for the storage of meat
within the settlement led to a wider use of natural cold storage. The Anglican
and Roman Catholic Missions have deep cellars in the frozen ground, as they
have a storage requirement for several tons of reindeer or caribou meat
needed for the hospitals and boarding schools.
“Dr. L. D. Livingstone who at one time was Medical Health Officer at
Aklavik writes ( [ we abridge slightly ) ] : ‘I had developed the underground cold
storage at Aklavik both at the medical headquarters there and also on my local
farm. These plants were built in similar style to those already in existence
there, only on a larger scale. My farm plant contained two chambers, one for
deep freezing and the upper one for cooling purposes, with a building on top.
This unit of mine was intended for the manufacture of milk products but as I
left about the time I was ready to produce, nothing much was done. At Aklavik
I have frozen deer meat within twenty-four hours in the month of July.’”
Of storage at Cape Bathurst, the Defence Board says: “Two types of
storage cellar are in use, one a deep vertical excavation to well within the
permafrost and the other a horizontal tunnel. The former method is more satis–
factory and always adopted where possible.
“Excavation of a vertical shaft is usually done during the winter months,
for the frozen silt can be removed easily, without danger of cave-in or of
surface water interfering with the work. The low winter temperature prevents
melting inside the shaft. When the shaft has been dug to a depth of six feet,
it is then widened as it goes down, forming a storage space of from eight to
fourteen feet square at the bottom, which is commonly at a depth of around
twenty feet.

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

“The entrance to the shaft is usually framed with logs, and double
trap doors are built into the entrance. The wider part of the shaft is
frequently divided into two storeys, the upper being used to freeze cuts
or carcasses individually before they are placed in the lower chamber for
permanent cold storage. A slanting roof of logs is usually built over the
site and extended to form an entrance porch in which double doors are built.
This is covered with an insulating layer of turf approximately six inches
thick, and the excavated material is heaped over this structure. A typical
storage cellar of this type is shown in Figure 3.
“The excavation of a horizontal tunnel is an easier matter, particularly
in rocky terrain. It suffers, however, from the grave disadvantage that it
is impossible to prevent the escape of cold air in the summer. As a result,
the temperatures within such tunnels are not low enough for satisfactory
storage over long periods.
“A modification of this method, which has been used with limited success
in the Canadian Arctic, is borrowed direct from local Eskimo practice and takes
the form of a comparatively shallow excavation in a sand or gravel ridge. Meat
may be preserved if placed in such a trench and covered with the excavated
material and an additional layer of sand or gravel, though after one or two
summer months it will become tainted.”
Natural Cold Storage in Siberia
Nature’s Siberian achievements in permafrost cold storage received
early notice from Europeans, but adoption of the method by Europeans in Siberia
came late. A. M. Chekotillo (“Underground Storage Places in Permafrost Ground,”
Priroda , Vol. 2, 1946, pp. 27-32) comments on the lateness. He points out that
Soviet territories in which this cheap storage method is available are not merely

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

but also that they extend far south, to the vicinity of great cities like
Irkutsk, and goes on: “It appears that the presence of such reserves of
cold would be widely utilized for the purpose of storing fish, game and
other products. The need for cold storage during the hot part of the year
is very acute even in the northern regions ( [ where midsummer temperatures
range toward 100°F. in the shade ) ] . Actually, however, the permafrost has
been utilized for cold storage to an insignificant degree.” He considers
future possibilities to be without limit, even on the southern fringe of
the permafrost territory, “inasmuch as these reserves of cold in the ground
can be replenished during winter systematically from year to year” — this
last with reference to his pointing out that the introduction of unfrozen
food into a permanent storehouse subtracts chill from its walls, which loss
needs to be compensated for each year by circulating winter air through the
storage chambers.
In his survey Chekotillo first sketches the native practice of digging
down on farther than to the top of the permafrost, using its chill somewhat
as we formerly used ice in our European-type ice houses, to slow up rather
than to prevent decay. He points out that sometimes these native storage
places were mere pits, unlined. In some cases there was a flooring of logs
or a lining of timber. Some of the pits had sheds over them.
Chekotillo says that “until recently no underground storage places for
industrial use were constructed anywhere in the permafrost region” of the
Soviet Union; but that, by 1945, the practice was growing “as a result of
the economic developments of our northern regions and the resulting need
for isothermic storage plants. The great economic and technical difficulties
of constructing refrigeration plants with machine equipments, in places remote
and difficult to reach, forced our economists to arrange for the use of the

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

ever-frozen ground, with its unlimited reserves of natural g c old. In the
thirties a number of cold-storage places were constructed for industrial
purposes but they were comparatively small; these were at Ust-Yenisei, at
the mouth of the river Khatanga, at Kuzur on the lower Lena, and at a few
other points in northern Siberia.”
As an example of what the early and small storage plants were like, the
one at Ust-Yenisei port is described. It was intended for storing fish and
was built in May-June, 1932, the ground blasted with dynamite. The entrance
to it was about 100 feet above the level of the Yenisei and 75 yards from a
plant in which the fish were processed. The horizontal chamber was at a
depth of 25 feet and there were two entrance shafts, one for people to go up
and down, the other for the elevators that raised and lowered the fish. The
shafts were timbered with logs near the top, to strengthen the active ground
layer, and below that with boards. The storage chamber had no lining for
walls or roof; the floor was of boards laid on the earth. There was the
difficulty that the walls, which were of a sandy clay, would dry out and
get crumbly. The moisture from them, and other moisture, rose to the roof,
where it formed in crystals. Chekotillo describes the process by quoting
Dr. Stephen Taber, University of South Carolina, from his Perennially Frozen
Ground in Alaska, Its Origin and History , New York, 1943, where Taber is
dealing with the Lomen plant at Elephant Point (described heretofore):
“Because of sublimation, ground ice is slowly being removed from the
walls and deposited on the ceilings of the rooms . . . Loss of ice from the
walls leaves the silt in relief. Some of the ice crystals formed on the
ceiling are beautiful. Individual crystals consist of several hexagonal
plates centered on a stem that hangs downward. The plates range up to 1.5

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

inches in diameter and tend to be smaller toward the lower tip of the
central stem.”
The inside storage space of the Ust-Yenisei plant’s horizontal chamber
was 398 cubic meters. Both vertical shafts were housed over with small
cabins, which were banked with moss and peat to a thickness of between
2 and 3 feet and to a height of 6 or 7 feet.
The accounts of the Ust-Yenisei plant do not mention a trouble fre–
quently dwelt on in Alaska descriptions, a thawing out of the walls, or a
warming to where meat preservation was no longer perfect, through the
entrance of too much heat when workmen spent long and continuous periods
bringing in meats to be frozen. Chekotillo says: “In the summer, during
the run of the fish, the loading and unloading of fish in the storage place
occurs almost daily, and the men work several hours at a stretch below.
Various quantities of fish are brought into the storage plant where it is
placed on the shelves to freeze, and then preserved in this state until it
is delivered to the canning factory.”
It could be that some of the difference between the Siberian and the
Alaska-Canadian experience is due to greater body warmth in reindeer than
in fish, but the main difference have no doubt been caused by features of
design and method. In some of the statements from both Alaska and Canada
we find the idea that a permafrost storage plant need special provision
for “ventilation” — which, in summer, means bringing in warm air deliberately.
This is strange, in a way, for the U.S. Army’s plant near Point Barrow had
no special ventilating arrangements, and it was the success of this plant
which led to the development of all the rest.
At Elephant Point, as described already, there was a special reason to

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

make ventilating provisions, since they were installing (as what turned out
to be an unnecessary precaution) an artificial refrigerating unit in one of
the permafrost storage alcoves, the operation of which would have required
large supplies of fresh air. The Soviet descriptions do not mention arti–
ficial refrigeration auxiliaries; there is from them no mention of special
provision for ventilating permafrost refrigerators, nor do such appear in
their published architectural drawing. (The Alaska reindeer meat store–
houses minimized the harm of their ventilation provisions by not stocking
up their refrigerating chambers until September, when the weather in north–
western Alaska is already cool in the day, with frosty nights. Describing
the Elephant Point plant, the quoted work by Taber says that “during summer
all doors are kept tightly closed.”)
In the Ust-Yenisei plant, the temperature varied during the first
summer between 2° and 12° below freezing. We have no later figures for this
refrigerator, but the temperature will have been lower in later years, since
it appears to be general Soviet practice to circulated cold air freely through
storage room during midwinter, by which practice it is considered they can
lower next summer’s average plant temperature, as compared with the first
year of operation, by from 5° to 9°. There are references to lowering
first-year averages by as much as 14 degrees, and to different summer tempera–
tures in different rooms of a given plant, this difference having resulted
from calculated difference between the amounts of cold air circulated through
these chambers the previous winter.
At Igarka, some 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Yenisei, is
one of several research stations devoted to permafrost studies. The recommenda–
tion of Sumgin, mentioned in the introductory part of our discussion, for the
establishment of a permafrost museum, was tentatively acted upon at Igarka in
1936 and museum studies have since been carried on there by the Permafrost

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

Institute, a branch of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. In 1942 these
underground laboratories were enlarged by an additional chamber of 467-cubic
meter capacity. “The cooling of the ground in this experimental chamber
is accomplished during winter by the natural cold of the outside air, the
temperature of which in Igarka runs to 50 and 55 degrees centigrade below
zero (58 to 67 degrees below, F.)”
Soviet writers make a point of the suitability of rooms excavated from
permafrost, and maintained at permafrost levels of temperature and moisture,
as laboratories in which to study permafrost conditions and behavior. The
different laboratory rooms, like different storage rooms, can be maintained
at different temperatures, if desired, through the admission of different
amounts of outside air, whether currently or by previous exposure of the
walls of the permafrost chambers to air of winter temperatures, which tempera–
tures will have been, to an extent, stores in the walls. Then there can be
auxiliary mechanical refrigerating or heating units for modifying laboratory
temperatures as desired.
Partly as a result of the studies carried on at Igarka, there has been
since 1942 a rapid extension of permafrost storage activity throughout the
northern Soviet Union, “particularly in the Kolyma district.”
Summarizing facts, conclusions, and recommendations, Chekotillo’s
paper closes by forecasting a marked extension of the use of permafrost
storage; for it is applicable not merely in the extreme north of the Soviet
Union but throughout the middle of the country, as far south as Irkutsk
(which American travelers have called “the Chicago of Siberia”). This south–
ward extension of the underground storage practice will have to make careful
use of winter chilling; but with that sort of care the method can be extended

EA-I. Stefansson: Natural Cold Storage

as far south in Siberia as Paris is in France. The construction of permafrost
shafts and chambers is simple, for timbering is required, like that of the
mines to which we are used; no linings are required for walls or ceilings,
since the formation of hoarfrost keeps them white. No repairs are ordinarily
necessary; for, so long as the underground frost continues, the chambers
are practically as lasting as if carved from rock. If small repairs are
needed, as from walls getting too dry and so starting to crumble, the remedy
is easy. Slushy snow can be applied like mortar and will freeze hard in
position; cold water can be sprayed on, like paint from a paint gun, and
will form a glazing.
Permafrost storage chambers are easy to keep at a uniform temperature
and moisture. Even near the southern limit of permafrost, it is considered
that judicious chilling during winter will permit the maintenance during
summer of a temperature that varies only between 14 and 18 degrees Fahrenheit
below freezing. Operating this sort of refrigerating plant is so simple that
anyone can do it, on the basis of a few written or printed rules, whereas
operating the ordinary artificial refrigerating plant requires engineers
and other skilled personnel. There is no danger from fire in the permafrost
chambers; there is no danger from such things as monoxide poisoning, as no
machinery is used within the plant (any power plant, for elevators and such,
is located above ground); nothing can explode, as with gas or steam equipment.
There is thus a minimum of construction cost and maintenance difficulty, a
maximum of safety and permanence.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson
Carl J. Lomen (Section on
Natural Cold Storage in Alaska)
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