A trip back in time

A trip back in time
May 3, 2013 Logan Stolpe

By Logan Stolpe, Extreme Alaska

Step inside and the raspy drone of a refrigeration system obscures all other sound.  Then the smell hits you.

“That lovely smell you smell in here – that’s rotting mammoth,” says Sarah Fowell, half joking.  Fowell, a geology professor at UAF, is leading a class of her students deep into a hillside about ten miles north of Fairbanks.

Behind a barbed wire fence, a padlocked shack, and an airlock door is a tunnel burrowed deep into the permafrost.  The tunnel, started in 1963 by the Army Corp of Engineers, was originally an experimental fallout shelter.  Now the approximately football field length tunnel is a jackpot for geologists and paleontologists.

Alex Edgar, a geology student and employee at the UAF Museum of the North helps lead the class through the tunnel and identify some of the fossils jutting from walls.  “This looks like a bison toe bone,” says Edgar, examining the two-inch long section of bone.

Edgar says that having this tunnel basically in UAF’s backyard is a fantastic research opportunity.  “Geologists in general, including paleontologists, want to see a specimen in place,” says Edgar, “that has 100 percent more data available.”  The placement, orientation and adjacent rock types can give clues to scientists about how an animal lived and possibly how it died.

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An ancient North American Long Horned Bison humerus (upper arm bone) sticking from the wall of the permafrost tunnel

As the class moves on, the shuffling of boots on the steel grating sounds like ice cubes clanking in a plastic cup.  “As we walk back here we’re walking back in time,” says Fowell.  Signs on the walls hanging off bones give approximate dates; a mammoth tusk — 11,000 years, a bison arm bone — 14,000 years.  In one section ancient roots hang from the roof dropping silt on white hard hats as students stoop under.

Eventually the tunnel stops at a chain link fence.  Cave-ins have made the ends of the tunnel hazardous to pass through.  At this point there is about 45 feet of permafrost overhead and everyone is standing in a riverbed from approximately 1 million years ago.

The Army Corp of Engineers is working on a new permafrost tunnel, several hundred feet away from the other one.  The effort is time consuming.  Running heavy digging equipment that puts out heat and exhaust in a tunnel made from frozen silt presents challenges.  The new tunnel could take up to a decade to be completed.

Find more information at the Permafrost tunnel’s website.

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