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Alexander Feodorovich Middendorf: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Alexander Feodorovich Middendorf

MIDDENDORF

Middendorf, Alexander Feodorovich (1815-1894), famous
Russian naturalist, traveler, and the first investigator of
permafrost, was born in St. Petersburg. He was educated at the
Pedagogical Institution in St. Petersburg and at the University
of Yuriev. He received his M.A. for his dissertation, Queadam
de bronchorum polypis, morbi casu observata illustrata,
and
subsequently went abroad where he studied at universities in
Berlin, Erlanger, Vienna, and Breslau. In 1839 he became the
assistant in Zoology at Kiev University, and in 1840 he partici–
pated in lapland expedition lead by Academician K.M. Baer,
anthropologist and zoologist, who devoted a considerable amount
of time to the study of Lapland, Novaya Zemlya, and the Caspian
Sea. There Middendorf studied birds, mollusks, and geology,
travelling to the Kola peninsula. He started from the town of
Kola, crossed the peninsula on foot to reach Kandalaksha. Upon
his return from this expedition he was made a full professor at
the University of Kiev in 1841.
In 1842-1845, at the request of the Academy of Sciences,
initiated by K. M. Berg, he was sent on a trip to Siberia. The
results of this trip became one of the most important achievements
of the 19th century because of the magnitude and value of Midden–
dorf's observations.

MIDDENDORF

This trip took him to the north of the Taimyr peninsula,
then further east to the Yakutsk area, and then across the Aldan
plateau and the Stanovoi mountains to the Amur river.
The purpose of the expedition was twofold: 1) The study
of organic life of the inland of the Far North far from the sea
shore. In this connection Baer suggested an investigation of
the area between the Pi a â sina and Khatanga rivers on the Taimyr pen–
insula, where the Siberian mainland juts far to the north and is
removed from the influence of the warm Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
2) Verification of the report concerning the existence of
"eternally frozen soil", (permafrost) which had been encountered
in the city of Yakutsk and assumed elsewhere. Baer had prepared
detailed instructions containing all the known facts about perma–
frost and "fossil ice" in Siberia, to serve as a guide for
Middendorf, and suggested detailed temperature observations of
the soil at various depths.
Middendorf left St. Petersburg in November 1842, went first
to Kransnoyarsk, and from there down the Yenisei to Turukhansk,
where he began his geothermic observations by drilling three test
pits 8.17, 13.65 and 9.9 meters deep. He did not find permafrozen
soil there and encountered only seasonal freezing. Proceeding
further north down the Yenisei he reached the settlement of Dudinka
and then turned east going into the tundra toward the Taimyr pen–
insula. On his way he made another test pit 3.96 meters deep and
there he found a true permafrost layer with a temperature of minus
4.5 degrees C.

MIDDENDORF

Traveling in the winter, Middendorf reached the Taimyr
river and in the spring, as soon as the river was free from ice,
he sailed on a crudely made boat across lake Taimyr and down the
narrow part of the Taimyr river between the Byranga mountains to
the river's mouth at the shores of the Arctic.
On his way back he followed the course of the river up to
the lake in the boat, but then winter set in and further progress
by water was impossible. He sent his companions to find help and
spent twenty days ill and half starved, all alone on the shore of
the lake until a group of Samoyeds which his companions found brought
the expedition back to the settlement.
Early in 1844, after his return to Krasnoyarsk, Middendorf
went to Yakutsk to study the permafrost in the Shergin well.
This well had been made in 1827, when a local merchant, Shergin,
in need of a water supply, had begun to dig for water. He began
digging in permanently frozen ground, but when he reached a
depth of 22.4 meters and failed to find water, he was ready to stop.
However, some scientists suggested that he continue his work in
the hopes of determining the thickness of the permanently frozen
layer in Yakutsk. Ten years later, in 1837, the work was stopped,
after a depth of 116.4 meters had been reached, still in the perma–
frozen layer. The bottom of t his now famous Shergin well is located
below the level of the Lena River in the Yakut region, and also
several meters below sea level, since the altitude of Yakutsk is
only 109 meters. However, the lower limits of the permafrozen
mass had not been reached, and Shergin's work demonstrated that in
the Yakutsk area there is permanently frozen ground which reaches

MIDDENDORF

a depth below sea level.
Middendorf took advantage of the existence of this deep
well and organized the first detailed temperature observations
of the layer of permafrozen ground. Test bores, seven feet deep ,✓
were drilled perpendicularly into one of the pit walls at var–
ious distances from the surface. Two thermometers attached to
wooden [: ] sticks were placed in each bore hole. The first
thermometer was placed one foot from the wall surface, and served
as the control thermometer; the second, the basic one, was placed
seven feet into the wall. An enclosure containing a windlass was
constructed at the surface and from there an observer lowered
himself in a bucket, and at periodic intervals would stop at
each bore hole, remove the stick, and record the temperature by
the light of a lantern.
These observations were conducted from two to five times
a month for twenty-six months, with three interruptions of six
months, two months , and a month. From the results of these obser-
vations, Middendorf concluded that the temperature of the perma–
frozen ground rises with depth. He also prepared a table of
[: ] geothermic gradients, and estimated the geothermic step at
a depth of 100 feet. From this he estimated the probable thick–
ness of the permafrost layer in Yakutsk to be 615 feet , excluding
the active layer. He also made a series of temperature observa–
tions in a number of shafts sunk into the ground in and around
the city of Yakutsk.
These observations and the series of important deductions
made from them were published by Middendorf in 1848 in German.

MIDDENDORF

His findings were widely publicized and generally accepted,
but some scientists doubted the validity of his data, because
the observations had not been continuous. However, Soviet
scientists later confirmed Middendorf's conclusions on the basis
of their subsequent work in and near Yakutsk. Thus, the science
of permafrostology owes a great debt to the work of Middendorf.
From Yakutsk Middendorf went south-east through Amginsk on
the Amga river to the basin of the Uchura river, then across the
Stanovoi mountain watershed, and then down the Uda river to the
shores of the Okhotsk Sea , which he reached in June 1844. There
he investigated the southern shore of the Okhotsk Sea and portions
of the Shantar Islands.
Turning almost directly south along the Tugur river he reached
the basin of the Bureya river. Then, following the southern
slopes of the Stanovoi mountains, he proceeded to the basin of
the Zeia river, to the Amur, and through Nerchinsk and Kiakhta
to K I rkutsk and returned to St. Petersburg in April 1845, after
having covered a distance of about 30,000 kilometers.
The full report of his expedition was published in German
in four volumes (1848-1875) and parts of it in Russian (1860-1869).
It contains valuable information on geology, geography, hydrography,
botany, zoology, ethnography, meteorology, and climatology. One
can find such diverse items as geology and geography of the
Khatanga tundra, magnetic observations of the Far North, survey of
old cartography and geography of Siberia, resum e é of the known
facts on the finds of frozen mammoth, and numerous observations on

MIDDENDORF

the life of the Samoyeds, Yakuts, Tungus, Goldi, and Orochons.
In 1850 the Academy of Sciences conferred membership on
him, and in 1855 he became its permanent secretary. He was a
prominent member of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society
and at one time held the position of Vice-President of that
organization.
In 1870 he accompanied Prince Alexei Alexandrius to the
White Sea where he studied the temperature of its waters, and to
Novaya Zemlya, where he made important observations on the
Gulf s S tream east of Nordcape North Cape and made trips to Southern Siberia,
the Crimea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus, etc. Two capes,
(in Karsk Sea on the Island of Novaya Zemlya, and on the peninsula
Taimyr) as well as a mountain chain separating the northern
plain of the left bank of the Kett river from the high plain near
Lake Yesey, were named after him.
In 1870 he published his observations on the Barabinsk
region, the character of the steppe, soil, and dunes surrounding
it, and the peculiar parallel character of the river valley, which
led him to conclude that the Barabinsk steppe had only recently
been the bottom of a sea.
In his volume on Fergana, the result of a three month trip,
Middendorf devoted a great deal of attention to problems of the
origin of the loess, and gives facts and arguments in favor of its
aeolian origin.
He was the author of valuable contributions on present and
extinct Russian fauna, physical geography, and agriculture.

MIDDENDORF

His works include:
1. Der Golfstrom Ostwarts vom Nord Kap in Peterman's Geogra–
pische Mittheilingen (1871, No. 1 Bulletin, Vol. XV, and
Zapiski Vol. XIX of the Academy of Sciences, 1871).
Inadequate —
not used
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