In Kansas, sometimes it seems that the frost will never go away. It seems like, when it’s still snowing in May, the ground will stay hard, and the moisture will never sink into the ground. But then, just days later, we end up getting sunny, stellar weather, and the hard ground softens with warmth and rain, the temperatures getting back to normal.
There are many parts of the world where this isn’t the case, though! In Siberia, for example, there is a thing called “Permafrost,” where the ground never fully unfreezes. Even though the top of the ground will soften during the warmer seasons, deep down, it stays frozen, hard, and impossible to soak or build down through. When we were studying Russia, we encountered this fact, but we never fully understood how this would affect life.
Luckily, we encountered this great experiment in our My Father’s World curriculum that gave us a better visual representation of what permafrost looked like, and it used simple household materials: a bowl, Jell-O, dirt, and ice.
Start by making Jell-O! Any flavor will work, including the unflavored, but we just happened to have some Cherry Jell-O on hand. You’ll want to prepare it in a glass or otherwise clear bowl so you can see the effect it creates!
Once it’s set, it’s all ready to go!
Cover that perfectly good Jell-O with a layer of dessert (if you’re smart, unlike us, you’ll make a second set of Jell-O before getting to this step… because you’ll sit there craving it through the whole lesson!)
Once you’ve got a good couple of inches of dirt, you’ll want to top that with some ice!
Now that you’ve got the ice on there, you’ve got a fairly decent representation of Siberia. It’s time to sit back and wait.
You see, the Jell-O represents the permafrost. The dirt is, well, dirt. It represents the ground in Siberia. And finally, the ice is the frozen tundra, which will thaw and melt, and you’ll see how the permafrost affects it.
At first, from a side view, you’ll notice nothing is happening. There will be an ice layer, a dirt layer, and a permafrost layer.
As the ice melts (as though spring and summer are coming!), you’ll notice that the ground gets soggy…
…but the sogginess doesn’t permeate or soak into the Permafrost (Jell-O) layer at all!
Eventually, your ice will totally melt! Summer has arrived!
But look… it still never fully permeates the permafrost! There is always that layer there– meaning the ground will be very soggy.
So what does this mean for people who live in Siberia? For one, paths are really muddy! But the worst part is that muddy ground like that will obviously provide a very unstable surface to build on. It means that many of the older homes are uneven and sinking into the ground. Newer buildings must be built up on stilts that sink far into the ground, allowing them to stay sturdy and stable, so they don’t sink or fall into the ground. It can cause some major problems when you spend time dealing with all of the water on the surface or extra mud.
Permafrost is a difficult concept to figure out or explain sometimes, but this is a great, visual way to show how permafrost works, and the effects that it has on structures and surfaces in Siberia.