“Tunnel Vision: Lessons in the Impermanence of Permafrost”

“In a tunnel beneath the frozen soil of Fox, Alaska, scientists are racing to understand permafrost before it is gone.”

“To enter the Fox permafrost tunnel — one of the only places in the world dedicated to the firsthand scientific study of the mix of dirt and ice that covers much of the planet’s far northern latitudes — you must don a hard-hat then walk into the side of a hill. The hill stands in the rural area of Fox, Alaska, 16 miles north of Fairbanks. The entrance is in a metal wall that’s like a partially dissected Quonset hut, or an enlarged hobbit hole. A tangle of skinny birches and black spruce adorn the top of the hill, and a giant refrigeration unit roars like a jet engine outside the door — to prevent the contents of the tunnel from warping or thawing.

On a mild, damp day in September, Thomas Douglas, a research chemist, escorts visitors through the tunnel door. Douglas works for a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), which has its fingers in everything from snowmelt modeling and wetlands plant inventories to research on stealth aircraft. But his own work focuses on several aspects of permafrost, and he leads occasional tours here.

Inside, the permafrost tunnel itself is even stranger than its exterior. A metal boardwalk crosses a floor thick with fine, loose, cocoa-colored dust. Fluorescent lights and electrical wires dangle above us. The walls are embedded with roots suspended in a masonry of ice and silt, with a significant content of old bacteria and never-rotted bits of plant and animal tissue. Because of this, the tunnel smells peculiar and fetid, like a malodorous cheese (think Stilton or Limburger) but with an earthy finish and notes of sweaty socks and horse manure.”

Madeline Ostrander reports for Undark April 28, 2020, with visuals by Whitney McLaren.