The Permafrost Tunnel provides a look back in time, allowing for research into the frozen ground of interior Alaska.
“What we’re going to do is walk back in time,” said Matthew Sturm, standing in front of a doorway that led into a hillside north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Through the doors was a tunnel that provides access to the Alaska of 40,000 years ago, when bison and mammoths foraged in grassy valleys. Now, however, the grasses and the animal bones are frozen in the ground in the Permafrost Tunnel.
The tunnel, run by the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, was dug in the 1960s and is the site of much research into permafrost—ground that stays frozen throughout the year, for multiple years. Sturm, a professor and snow researcher at the University of Alaska, recently led a group with NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) to the site. The walls of the tunnel expose the silt, ice, and carbon-rich plant and animal matter that has been frozen for tens of thousands of years. “It’s a legacy of the Ice Age,” Sturm said. Roots of long-buried grasses hang from the ceiling, in a few places bones of Pleistocene mammals are embedded in the wall.