Academician Pavel Melnikov




Founder and director of the Permafrost Institute (1960-1987)

First president of the International Permafrost Association (1983-1988)


The life and career of Academician Pavel Melnikov, an outstanding scientist and research administrator, spanned almost the entire stormy twentieth century. He was nine when the Revolution of 1917 broke out and he passed away in the midst of Perestroika, another trouble time of social perturbations. A witness and participant of the many dramatic events in the country’s history, Melnikov retained his commitment to science and serving the society throughout the most controversial times.

After graduating from the Leningrad Mining Institute in 1935, Melnikov was invited to the USSR Academy of Sciences Commission on Permafrost in Moscow. The young, enthusiastic engineer was assigned to the Geological Department of the Northern Sea Route Office where he was appointed chief of a permafrost research station in Igarka. Here he initiated and directed detailed permafrost, groundwater and engineering-geological investigations. During those years, the first underground research facility in permafrost was constructed for conducting experiments at freezing temperatures. Their results played an important role in the advancement of frozen ground engineering.

In 1939, Melnikov joined the Yakutian Multi-Purpose Expedition organized by the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Council for Investigation of Productive Resources. The Expedition was coordinated by the pioneer of Russian permafrost research Professor M.I. Sumgin, who, a year later, recommended Melnikov as chief officer of the Expedition. This was the beginning of his more than half a century association with Yakutia.

Based on the Yakutian Multi-Purpose Expedition, a permafrost research station of the Obruchev Permafrost Institute was founded in Yakutsk in 1941. Melnikov was put in charge of the new station. He went on with great energy, perseverance and enthusiasm to recruit highly skilled personnel and procure resources; and within a very short space of time research was well established.

The Yakutsk station’s major achievement was the drilling and sampling of first hydrogeological boreholes in Yakutia. Since this extensive research which led to the development of water wells in Central Yakutia, groundwater has been recognized as an important source of municipal water supply in permafrost regions. It is no surprise that Melnikov and his colleagues were awarded the USSR Governmental Award for the discovery of the Yakutian Artesian Basin.

No less important were the contributions to engineering and regional geocryology. Theoretical and experimental work on pile foundations in permafrost, development of the relationships to predict physical and mechanical characteristics of soils in the station’s underground laboratory, explanation of the alas terrain development, understanding of the mechanisms by which wedge ice is formed in Quaternary deposits of Central Yakutia, are but a few of the research accomplishments of the Yakutsk permafrost station headed by Pavel Melnikov. Melnikov’s monograph entitled Permafrost and Geological Criteria for Residential and Industrial Construction in Central Yakutia received great praise from practitioners. It gave a detailed presentation on the theory, design methods and construction techniques for buildings and structures on permafrost. It also contained recommendations on remedial measures to restore damaged buildings.

In 1960, the Yakutsk permafrost station was reorganized into the Permafrost Institute, subordinate to the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The Siberian Branch Presidium appointed Pavel Melnikov director of the new institute.

During about 30 years in charge of the Institute, Melnikov was successful in many realms: research, administration and public service. In 1966, he compiled the first permafrost map of Yakutia at a scale of 1:5,000,000. Under his guidance, the Permafrost Institute carried out impressive fundamental, experimental and field research. A few examples of this are series of special-purpose permafrost maps; pioneering results in the study of frozen-ground electrical, physical, chemical and mechanical properties; new foundation designs; thawing techniques for gold placer mining; thermal analysis methods for buried gas and water pipelines; and basin irrigation of farmlands. Large-scale reconnaissance and monitoring studies were conducted in support of the diamond mining industry, Vilyui hydroelectric power plant, Tas-Tumus to Yakutsk gas pipeline, Baikal-Amur Railroad and other major industrial projects in various parts of Siberia.

In 1981, Melnikov was elected Full Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Although this service claimed more of his time, Melnikov continued to focus on fostering permafrost-related research. He saw his civic duty in strengthening the cooperation between research and industry to promote economic development of permafrost regions. Under Melnikov’s direct leadership, the Permafrost Institute developed guidelines, regulations, instructions and manuals oriented to designers, construction engineers and maintenance personnel. Some of these are: the guidelines for gas pipelines, land reclamation earthfill dams and underground storage facilities in permafrost regions, the design manuals for new foundations on permafrost, the methodologies for ground-temperature control, and the recommendations for comprehensive permafrost monitoring at project sites.

A man of great learning, impressive experience and exceptional scientific instincts, Melnikov had his own vision of the ways to address the critical problems posed to science and practice. Even if it contradicted the official policy, he was never afraid of speaking and arguing for his intelligent and well-reasoned views – a risky endeavor in Soviet times.

Among Melnikov’s most notable achievements were his efforts to initiate and broaden cooperation with permafrost researchers abroad. He organized a number of international meetings on various scientific and engineering aspects of frozen ground. These well thought out, highly informative meetings and accompanying field trips no doubt helped break ice and establish bridges. The most important meeting was the Second International Conference on Permafrost held in 1973 in Yakutsk. This greatly successful conference was attended by 700 participants, of which 120 were from foreign countries. This was a real breakthrough in establishing the strong international ties and coordination in the field of permafrost science and engineering. The Conference clearly demonstrated Melnikov’s high ranking status in the world permafrost community. This leadership was recognized formally in 1983 in Fairbanks, Alaska, when he was elected President of the newly formed International Permafrost Association.

Noteworthy also are the Melnikov’s exceptional contributions in the education and training of permafrost scientists and professionals. Largely owing to his efforts, a department of geocryology, the first in Siberia, was established in the Yakutsk University. When the first graduates of the department defended their diploma theses in 1982, Melnikov chaired the Board of Examiners. It was his unwavering support that made the department a major educational center in the region in fields of geocryology, hydrogeology, engineering geology and environmental geoscience. Today, its graduates work with academic and industrial organizations in Yakutia, as well as elsewhere in Siberia and far North-East. Among his other initiatives were the Undergraduate Courses, the Post Graduate School, and the PhD and Dr. Sc. Theses Council that continue to be active at the Permafrost Institute.

To honor the outstanding contributions of Pavel Melnikov to geocryological science, his life’s legacy - the Permafrost Institute – now bears his name.

Rudolf Zhang

Director of MPI, 2004-2012



Important Dates in the Scientific Career of Academician Melnikov

1908, July 19  ---- born in St. Petersburg

1924-1927 ---- childhood in an orphanage; studies in the Frunze Naval College, Leningrad

1927-1930 ---- works at Krasniy Treugolnik and Krasniy Vyborzhets factories, Leningrad

1930-1935 ---- studies in the Department of Hydrogeology and Engineering Geology, Leningrad Mining Institute

1935 (Jul) -1939 (Jan) ---- appointed Chief of the Igarka permafrost station, Agency for Geology and Mining

1939 ---- transferred as an acting senior research officer to the Yakutian Multi-Purpose Expedition organized by the USSR AS Council for Investigation of Productive Resources

1940 ---- first scientific publication

1940 ---- leads the Yakutian Expedition, USSR AS Council for Investigation of Productive Resources, and the Obruchev Permafrost Institute Expedition

1941 (summer) ---- selects a site for the drilling program which resulted in the discovery of the Yakutsk artesian basin in March 1944

1941 ---- heads the first permafrost research station of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Yakutia

1947 ---- receives the degree of Candidate of Science from Moscow Institute of Geological Exploration; thesis titled ‘Permafrost and Geological Criteria for Residential and Industrial Construction in Central Yakutia Based on Experimental Projects at Yakutsk’

1948 ---- receives an honorary title for the discovery of the Yakutsk artesian basin (in co-authorship)

1952 ---- awarded the Merited Scientist of Yakutskaya ASSR Honorary Title

1955-1959 ---- serves as Vice-Chairman of the Supreme Council of Yakutia

1956 ---- appointed director of the North-Eastern Branch of Obruchev Permafrost Institute

1958 ---- receives an invention certificate for ‘The Frozen Zone of the Lithosphere in the Lena Basin, Yakutia’ (in co-authorship)

1960 ---- appointed director of the Permafrost Institute affiliated to the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences

1964 ---- receives the degree of Doctor of Sciences in Geology & Mineralogy

1965 ---- receives the degree of Professor in engineering geology, permafrost science and soil engineering

1965 ---- Viluisk permafrost research station is established in Chernyshevsky, western Yakutia

1968 ---- elected Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Department of Earth Sciences

1969 ---- receives the Meritorious Worker in Science and Technology of the RSFSR Honorary Title

1969, March ---- the Permafrost Institute is awarded the Red Banner of Labour Order

1970 ---- appointed Chairman of the Scientific Council on Earth Cryology

1972 ---- an alpine geocryological station starts observations in the vicinity of Alma-Ata (since 1974 the laboratory of the Permafrost Institute)

1977 ---- appointed Chairman of the Savarensky Award Committee

1978 ---- on Melnikov’s initiative, Department of Permafrost Science is opened at the Faculty of Geological Exploration, Yakutsk University

1980 ---- elected member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

1981, January ---- leads the Russian scientific delegation to the World Exhibition ‘Man and His World’, Montreal, Canada

1981 ---- elected Full Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Department of Oceanology, Atmospheric Physics and Geography

1983 ---- elected Chairman of the new Doctoral Theses Council authorized to award degrees in geography, geology & mineralogy, and engineering (specialty 25.00.08 – engineering geology, geocryology and geotechnical engineering)

1983 ---- elected first President of the International Permafrost Association (Fairbanks, Alaska, USA)

1991 ---- named Editor-in-Chief of a new journal, Geocryology

1992 ---- elected Chairman of the Russian Office of the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group (IBSTRG)

1994, July 21 ---- Academician Pavel Melnikov dies in Moscow at the age of 87. Buried at Troekurov Cemetery

1995 ---- by Executive Order of President of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) M. Nikolaev, the Permafrost Institute was given the name of Academician P.I. Melnikov. The memorial plaque was installed at the Institute’s building.