28 November, 2001
Imagine shrinking yourself down to the size of a ground squirrel and being able to explore the under world of the Arctic. I was able to take a tour of the underground Alaska without shrinking my size one inch. I was taken on a tour of the permafrost tunnel here at CRREL (Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory) in Fort Wainwright.
Permafrost is an essential component of the arctic ecosystem. Permafrost is when the soil is completely frozen for the entire year. Four-fifths of Alaska land is permafrost. Much of Fairbanks is in a discontinuous permafrost which means regions of Fairbanks has permafrost whereas other places do not. Introducing any heat to the permafrost from cars, houses and buildings can cause the land to thaw. This makes houses sink and dips in roads. Permafrost can melt just within a temperature difference of one degree. Permafrost in southern Alaska can be two to 10 feet whereas northern Alaska can reach depths of 1000 feet. I felt like a miner would entering into the cold, black unknown of the tunnel. The smell was intoxicating with decaying plant matter reminding me of a barn filled with animals. There was dusty, gray, silt lining the floor which immediately sprung into the air as my feet hit the ground. I imagined that one day astronauts would have this same feeling when they land on Mars. The air was cold- below zero and the tunnel was dimly lit with bulbs. Within these conditions, the tunnel revealed its remarkable secrets. You are essentially walking back through time as you go farther and farther into the tunnel. The deeper you go, the farther back in time you retreat. There are fossils dating back from 14,000 years to 40,000 years. There were jaw bones and leg bones fossils from horses during the Pliocene age. There are other fossil remains from buffaloes, saber tooth tigers and ground squirrels. The fumigating, rotting smell comes from thousand year old roots finally being exposed to air and decaying. It's amazing to inhale thousand year old rotting roots! The tunnel not only exposes fossils but massive permafrost ice shapes such as wedges, ponds and lenses. These ice shapes were formed by water collecting in pockets in the soil or actually pushing the soil out of the way. Most people think of permafrost as just frozen soil. However, it is this massive network of thick layers of ice actually within the layers of soil. These layers of ice formed thousands of years ago make up the permafrost that is so vital to the arctic ecosystem. The permafrost tunnel is the only one in North America and provides a tool for endless scientific research on permafrost. The construction of the tunnel is quite amazing. The valley that it lies within was originally mined for gold. The tunnel actually exposes some of the gravel beds that would have had gold. To my disappointment there was no gold left in these beds.! This tunnel was excavated in stages by the government during the 1960's for use of scientific research. In fact during the cold war it was thought that the tunnel could be used as an underground shelter for nuclear attacks! However today and for years to come it will be used for cold research!
Low -22 F
High -2 F
Note: We will be heading out to Nome and Council Alaska tomorrow to get equipment ready for the long traverse. We will have only use of a satellite phone - so there may be difficulties in journals. Please be patient!
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