Students explore permafrost tunnel
by John Moore
UAF Professor Christopher Maio’s Elements of Physical Geography class got a rare inside access pass to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel turned research site in Fox, Alaska. The students got hands on field work looking at aspects of geomorphology, ice wedges inside the walls of the tunnel, as well as observing plant life and animal fossils dating back as far as 40,000 years ago.
The tunnel is located about 10.5 miles north of Fairbanks and was built in the 1960’s by the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) and in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The tunnel was originally built as an experimental excavation project in permafrost. However, the tunnel has turned into one of the most prized and cost effective natural laboratories ever constructed.
Now owned by the U.S. Army’s CRREL, the site remains active and studied by scientists from around the globe. From 1964 to the present, over 70 technical papers have been produced ranging in topics from mining, geotechnical engineering, geophysics, geocryology, paleontology and extraterrestrial permafrost, just to name a few.
Thomas A. Douglas, a research chemist with CRREL gave students an unprecedented look at the inside of the 377 foot long tunnel and all of the hidden scientific treasures buried and frozen in the Alaskan soil. Just walking in you can see bones of bison and mammoths, grasses, wood fragments, as well as core samples and scientific studies taken over the years from the frozen ice and soil within the tunnel.
In fact, living bacteria was collected from a set of ice wedges and was successfully brought back to life in a laboratory. The bacteria turned out to be roughly similar to bacteria found on Earth today. The research opened up a whole new field in extraterrestrial permafrost on the idea that bacteria could potentially be frozen in time on the polar ice caps of Mars and certain frozen moons of Jupiter.