Permafrost Tunnel offers glimpse into past

FAIRBANKS — With a cold gust of air, research engineer Kevin Bjella steps through an air-tight door into the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory’s Permafrost Tunnel and into a 40,000-year-old frozen world. Mammoth bones jut out of tunnel walls that are etched with glassy permafrost ice wedges formed over tens of thousands of years.

 

Largely limited to scientific and industrial research, it’s a world not many people have seen, but this weekend everyone will get a chance to step back in time.

As an effort to expand interest in scientific curiosity, the CRREL will host the first Permafrost Tunnel Open House this weekend, inviting everyone to take a tour of the tunnel.

Visitors will get a chance to take a guided tour through the tunnel, as well as learn the history of the tunnel, local mining and prehistoric Fairbanks. There also will be above-ground activities, including hands-on mammoth bones, frost probing and mining history.

“We’re really curious how it’ll all work,” Bjella said. “We’ve been here for 50 years and not many people have seen it.”

The permafrost tunnel was built in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and yielded a slew of scientific research and developments on topics such as mining, civil engineering on permafrost, geology, paleontology, biology and even Mars studies.

While walking through the tunnel, which is kept at a 24 degrees Fahrenheit, Bjella says there’s no other facility like it in the world, and it’s been a destination from researchers all over the world.

“It’s not buzzing, but the tunnel is well-known, and everybody in permafrost and Pleistocene research knows about it,” he said.

Recently the tunnel has been host to researchers, some policymakers and students through a research partnership with University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Northern Engineering, but Bjella said CRREL hopes to eventually change that.

The open house is an opportunity for CRREL to gauge interest in the tunnel and see if it would be worth it to make it open more often. He said, ideally, new public-friendly facilities and tunnels would be built.

“This really isn’t a tourist facility; it’s a research facility,” he said. “It’s out of capability, but we would really like to get it to that point.”

CRREL also is undertaking an ambitious effort to greatly expand the permafrost tunnel by adding more than 1,000 linear feet of tunnel to the existing 500 or so feet. Bjella said the engineers got about 100 feet in before funding stalled expansion efforts.

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