February 7, 2012 A Step Back In Time: The Permafrost Tunnel
Entering the Wardrobe!
Nineteen educators and ARCUS staff disappeared into the ice encrusted, impossibly tiny red hut tucked against the hill. Following at the end of the line I watched as everyone streamed in, seeming to go impossibly beyond the actual depth of the building's outside dimensions.
Could this small hut covered with snow and ice actually have a room inside that fit so many people? It reminded me momentarily of the wardrobe leading to the wintery fantasy world in C.S. Lewis’s book, The Chronicles of Narnia. As I crouched to enter the ice-crystal laced hallway I observed that the entrance did in a way, lead to a magical land. However this one was real and provided a view into the past, thanks to permafrost’s icy hold on everything that lay beneath the hill.
The Permafrost Tunnel is located near the valley floor of Goldstream Creek, sixteen kilometers North of Fairbanks Alaska. The Tunnel was dug more than forty years ago to examine mining and construction techniques as well as to provide a cross-sectional view of an undisturbed area of permafrost for research purposes. Our guide through the frozen underworld was Arthur Gelvin, and as we walked into the tunnel he explained that it is maintained and operated by the United States Army and researchers from it’s Cold Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). One of their jobs is to see that the tunnel remains permanently frozen at a temperature of between -5 and -4 degrees Celsius. The surrounding area permafrost is warmer, closer to -1 degree Celsius, which while still below freezing, is not cold enough to support the fifteen meters of soil lying above the excavated tunnel. Consequently a system of compressors, pumps, duct work and vents are used to maintain the frozen environment.
As we clambered onto the metal walkway and moved deeper into the shaft I was happy that someone was keeping an eye on the thermometer that insured the structural integrity of the multi-ton sediment ceiling lurking just above our heads.
We looked in awe at the frozen relics along the way, exploring more than one hundred and ten meters of frozen silt, sand, gravel, ice and bones that have remained frozen for thousands of years.
As time passed and we entered into the deepest parts of the tunnel, the ceiling reduced us to crouch positions and the air began to fill with ancient silt dust stirred up by our present-time footsteps.
All too soon, it was time to go. Leaving the world of the past behind we streamed out of the tiny red hut, blinking as we entered back into the sparkling Alaskan winter day of 2012.
Next stop? The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline!
To watch a video of our trip inside the Permafrost Tunnel and alongside a section of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline go to the following video created by PolarTREC educator alumni Juan Botella: