One of the tantalizing pleasures of word mining is knowing there’s always a rich vein of linguistic delights to be unearthed, no matter how unassuming the visible signs might be….it just might take some sustained digging to find them. But sometimes the rewards are laid out right before us with just a glance or two, like the gold nuggets strewn across the beaches of Nome that prompted its legendary gold rush.
The language of permafrost is of the latter kind, an absurdly copious domain for word lovers filled with terms that are intrinsically musical but together become a kind of poetry. In perusing writing about permafrost you will read of the earth as living material in the form frost blisters, boils, bulbs and heaves, ice wedges, lenses and veins. You will explore reticulate ice and river taliks and puzzle over solifluction aprons, sheets and lobes. And no matter what they might actually look like, I am content with the images evoked by stone garlands, stony earth circles and string fens.
But the word I bring to you today piqued my interest with its simple, memorable sound, making it a word I remembered but didn’t know: I present the pingo.
A pingo /PEENG-oh/ (also called a hydro- or cryo-laccolith, if you want to get all sciency about it) is a conical or dome-shaped earth mound of soil-covered ice. Pingos, which can reach well over 200 feet high and 2000 feet in diameter, are formed by freezing water forced to expand upward due to surrounding permafrost and we are specifically warned by the International Permafrost Association, in the form of its surprisingly captivating Multi-Language Glossary of Permafrost and Related Ground-Ice Terms, not to confuse the perennial pingo with its seasonal lookalike, the aforementioned frost blister, known more prosaically as a seasonal frost mound.