First Permafrost Tunnel Open House provides public with a glimpse into the frozen past

September 21, 2012 • Filed under: News — melanie.rohr

On the weekend of August 18th, the Institute of Northern Engineering (INE) co-sponsored the first Permafrost Tunnel Open House. For the past 50 years, INE has partnered with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) to ensure research-based access to one of the world’s few permafrost tunnels. However, until the 18th, the tunnel was never formally open to the general public.

UAF and CRREL staff gave back-to-back tours for the open house, with each group staying in the tunnel 15 to 20 minutes. Above ground, multiple exhibits—including bones, permafrost education, frost probing, and mining history—offered more information about the tunnel to browsers. Though organizers did not know what to expect in regard to attendance, public interest was resounding. On Saturday alone, organizers gave out all of the day’s tour tickets within an hour and a half of opening; approximately 475 people got tickets, and hundreds of others were advised to return early Sunday morning.

About the large turnout, INE director Dan White stated that “the overwhelming response demonstrates the interest and enthusiasm to understand permafrost and how it affects our lives.” As one of INE’s certified tour guides, he lead several tours at the open house.
“After being in the tunnel and seeing the people there, I realized it was a once in a lifetime chance,” said Cheryl Conner, assistant to the dean of the College of Engineering and Mines. Though unable to get a ticket for the Saturday tours, she returned Sunday for an early morning viewing of the tunnel. When asked about her overall impression of the tunnel, she stated, “It’s definitely something I would recommend.”

The main tunnel extends roughly 550 feet into a hillside; the tour covers about 300 feet. Though it is only a little under the length of two football fields, the tunnel represents 60,000 years of geological time. A few feet from the main entrance, a second tunnel segment juts out, extending an additional 250 feet. Main points of interest include frozen animal remains, large ice wedges, and a slab of ice that contains millions of Paleolithic bacteria. The bacteria are used by scientists world-wide to study prehistoric life and offer helpful insights into the evolution of both bacteria and larger animals.

The U.S. Army, which originally excavated and still owns the permafrost tunnel, is currently in the process of digging a new addition, designed to create a new entrance that will also link to the existing tunnel space.

This image shows a large lens of massive ground ice which formed about 30 thousand years ago. This ice body is about 5 meters (~16.5 ft) long. The numbers show the age of the organic matter in the ice as determined by radiocarbon (C14) dating.