The frozen tunnel that can take you back in time

by Shirley Williams
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If you are a fan of Netflix (most of us are) you may have come across a show called Dark. It is a science fiction drama where the people of small-town start to experience strange disappearances. This is because there is a cave in the town that is actually a time machine and it transports people to the past. The show works well because it juxtaposes this incredible science fiction with everyday family drama. One moment you are trying to figure out the limits of time-space paradoxes, the next moment you are wondering if a leading character is cheating on his wife (don’t worry, none of these things are spoilers). Yet the idea of time travel through a tunnel is not so far fetched. There is a tunnel in the North of Alaska that offers the same thing.

The Fox tunnel in Alaska is not capable of time travel but it does allow you to walk into history. The tunnel was built in 1963 and goes 50 feet underground and is 360 feet long. What is truly remarkable about this tunnel is that it bores through permafrost. Permafrost is any ground that remains frozen for at least two years, it is permanently frozen. This is special because it can trap things in time and preserve them in the original state. Walking through the Fox tunnel is, therefore, like walking through time. The deeper in the tunnel you go the further back in history you are surrounded by. 

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Permafrost is found close to the north and south poles and covers 85% of Alaska today. Today the tunnel is used for scientific exploration and to provide a greater understanding of permafrost. Yet it was originally built to test whether the surface could be used as a viable bomb shelter.

At the greatest depths of the tunnel, the walls and fossils are as old as 40,000 years. Throughout the tunnel, there have been discoveries of ancient bones from bison, horse, and even mammoths. The tunnel is proving incredibly useful for a wide range of studies. Experts believe that the surfaces inside the tunnel are similar to those on Mars so it is being used by those both interested in the Earth and in space. It is being used by animal experts to understand how ancient animals roamed the Earth. It is being used by climate change experts to understand how important permafrost is and what it melting may mean for our world.

There is a growing fear that melting permafrost may mean disaster for our world. Many now believe that the permafrost is holding many materials frozen that we don’t want to let out. If it melts it could unleash havoc on Earth. There may be viruses there that our modern world has no vaccines for. While that is one unknown there is a more concrete fear about carbon emissions. Permafrost holds frozen carbon in place and as it melts it releases more and more carbon. Each year it is estimated that the melting permafrost is placing as much carbon into the environment as the transport activities of France. Clearly the permafrost and the Fox tunnel hold the answers to some very important questions.

While you can’t visit the tunnel, as it is used for private research, you can explore it through a virtual online tour. We have done the tour and found it absolutely fascinating. The research conducted in the Fox tunnel is incredibly important for a wide range of scientific areas. While the permafrost may spell disaster for our carbon emissions we are only at the beginning of understanding what treasures it holds. While it may hold disaster it may hold the answers too.

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