Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Dec. 5 2016 12:30 PM

What Happens If Someone Dies on Mars?

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

It’s entirely possible that someone alive today on Earth will be the first person to die on Mars. The private company Mars One expects that, after a one-way flight, its interplanetary travelers will remain there for the rest of their lives.

Billionaire space magnate Elon Musk has said that, eventually, he’d like to die on Mars himself. His company, SpaceX, is planning a return flight on its Mars journeys, but, as Musk said last week, with the risk of death so high, anyone who goes on the first Mars flights must be prepared not to come back. If humans reach Mars, at least a few of us are likely to die there.

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This would be a milestone of its own. In the history of humanity, only three people have died in space—cosmonauts on the Soyuz 11 mission when their return capsule depressurized at 104 miles above sea level, well past the boundary between Earth and the rest of the universe. No one’s ever been buried, cremated, or left to the elements on another planet.

If a person did die on Mars, what would happen to their body?

If left out on the Martian surface, a human body would last a very, very long time. On Earth, post-death destruction starts with decomposers, which move in fast and start using organic matter to fuel their own little lives. Mars has no biology, that we know of.

In the immediate aftermath of death, a body would still start to decompose there: the bacteria inside, transplanted from Earth, would go to work. If a dead body was left outside at the Martian equator, where temperatures sometimes reach pleasant-enough highs during the day, this could go on for a few hours. Without an insulating atmosphere, though, the planet cools quickly, and even balmy Martian nights are as cold as polar nights here. The body would freeze, stopping the work of the bacteria, and begin the slow, dry process of mummifying.

Working against the preservation of the cold would be ionizing radiation, which destroys organic compounds and bathes Mars at levels unheard of on Earth. One plausible explanation for why we haven’t found any traces of life on Mars is that the high levels of radiation there zapped any organic compounds into gases that show no trace of their former life.

Eventually, radiation would do away with more of the body, but it would take eons—100 million years from the first human death on Mars, it’s possible that the person’s bones could still be found.

Being human, Mars colonists probably wouldn’t just throw bodies out on the ground and leave them there. If a body was buried, though, it would be even better preserved than if it were left on the surface—the conditions would still be cold and dry, but the body would be protected from radiation.

To dispose of a body, Mars explorers or colonists would have to resort to cremation or deliberate decomposition. Either is possible; Mars One already chosen cremation as its method for disposing of the dead. A cremation fire would require two resources that Mars missions are already looking to extract or manufacture on Mars: oxygen and fuel. But even if the settlement is not manufacturing fuel, there could be enough leftover from the trip there to feed a fire.

The other option is less conventional, since it would basically amount to composting human bodies. However, a space bioethicist told Slate that this option seemed unlikely—“There are societies that desperately need fertilizer, and even they don’t use their dead bodies for the purpose,” he said—but it seems to be one of the first options that pops into people’s minds.

It makes sense: Any semi-permanent Mars colony would benefit from a composting system that reserved food waste and recycled it back into new plants, and astronauts already violate earthly taboos about waste by drinking recycled urine, for instance. If it’s possible to get past the taboo of death, actively composting a human body isn’t so different than burying it in the ground.

Besides Mars One, Mars-faring expeditions haven’t been so clear cut about their plans for death, though. NASA, presumably, would use a similar approach to its current preparation for astronauts—”contingency” or death sims, in which, astronaut Chris Hadfield has written, an entire team works through the basic questions: what to do with the corpse and its smell? How quickly will a body decompose? How should the person’s family be notified? How should the PR team respond?

Of course, we have to get to Mars first for any of this to be relevant. But planning ahead for end-of-life is always advisable.

Special thanks to the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and to Jim Cleaves for their thoughts on death and decomposition on Mars.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Dec. 2 2016 12:30 PM

What’s a Woggin? A Bird, a Word, and a Linguistic Mystery

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

On Dec. 20, 1792, the whaling ship Asia was making its way through the Desolation Islands, in the Indian Ocean, when the crew decided to stop for lunch. According to the log keeper, the meal was a great success: "At 1 PM Sent our Boat on Shore After Some refreshments," he wrote. "She returned with A Plenty of Woggins we Cooked Some for Supper."

Right about now, you may be feeling peckish. But you may also be wondering: What in the world is a woggin?

New species are discovered all the time. Unknown old species—extinct ones, found as fossils and then plugged into our historical understanding of the world—turn up a lot, too. But every once in a while, all we have to go on is a word. New or old, known or unknown, no one knew what a woggin was until Judith Lund, whaling historian, decided to find out.

Like all professionals, 18th-century whalers had their share of strange jargon. A blanket was a massive sheet of blubber. Gurry was the sludge of oil and guts that covered the deck after a kill, and a gooneywas an albatross. Modern-day whaling historians depend on their knowledge of these terms to decode ship's logs—vital for understanding the sailors' day-to-day experiences, as well as gleaning overall trends. Being elbow-deep in whaleman slang is just part of the job.

So when Lund ran into a word she didn't know, it caught her eye. Lund was at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, trying to dig up some data on oil harvest rates. "I was reading a logbook and charging along beautifully," she says, "when I came across the fact that whalemen on that voyage were eating woggins and swile."

Lund had heard of swile—it's whaler slang for seals—but woggins were new. She asked the museum librarian, who didn't know either. "The woggin was a mystery to both of us," she says. So Lund did what any curious person would—started emailing everyone she could think of, asking if they had ever heard of it.

Dec. 1 2016 12:30 PM

The Lesbian Vampire Story That Came Before Dracula

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

When thinking of the origins of Vampire literature in the Western world, chances are you think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This chef-d'oeuvre has defined the genre ever since it was published more than 100 years ago.

But years before Stoker was obsessively researching for his book, another vampire story was written in Ireland. Carmilla, a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, could be called the original vampire novel of modern Europe.

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Written in 1871, the novella is a first-person account from Laura, a young English woman who falls prey to a beautiful vampire. In some detail, Laura tells us of a curious incident that brings Carmilla, a stranger, into her home.

At first, she is scared of the newcomer, who looks exactly like a specter she had seen in a nightmare when she was a child. But these feelings quickly subside and are replaced by an ardent relationship that blossoms with intensity.

In the meantime, panic arises as maidens from nearby towns are afflicted by a mysterious illness that causes their deaths. Eventually, Laura herself becomes ill and has recurring nightmares of a giant cat that attacks her at night.

As a strange twist of fate, a general who has lost his niece to the illness comes to visit Laura's father. He is now aware of the reality of vampires and is on the hunt for Millarca—as he knew Carmilla. When the two unexpectedly come face to face, a fight ensues and Carmilla, now exposed, flees.

After the incident, Laura is taken back and guarded by several people. Meanwhile, her father, the general, and a vampire hunter find Carmilla’s hidden tomb, drive a stake into her heart, decapitate her, and burn her remains. Laura recovers her health, but never fully, and continues to be haunted by the memory of Carmilla for the remainder of her short life.

Most scholars agree that Carmilla heavily influenced Dracula, as elements of the first appear in the latter, though modified or amplified. The aesthetic of the female vampire, for example, is very much the same in both stories. They have rosy cheeks, big eyes, full lips, and almost irresistible sensuality. There is also the vampire hunter who comes to the rescue and imparts his knowledge of the obscure on the confused victims. Even the narrative frame of Stoker’s masterpiece is quite similar to Le Fanu’s: first-person accounts from the victims.

But what makes Carmilla so endearing are not its similarities to other works of the genre but its distinct differences. Most notably, the fact that the story is centered around two female characters, whose complicated relationship is colored by thinly veiled lesbian undertones.

The novella was written during the Victorian era, a period known for its strict moral laws and sexual repression, so no wonder vampire novels rose into prominence. The premise of these novels is that even the most pure of hearts cannot resist the supernatural seduction. This idea was extremely attractive for the Victorian upper class, especially women, whose desires have always been rigidly restricted.

However, powerlessness does not mean redemption or absolution, as these powers are understood to be evil and tied to devilish forces. In almost every vampire story, the women who are preyed upon meet their deaths, unless the men in their lives come to their rescue. As such, the vampire trope simultaneously provided an outlet for repressed sexual desires and a moral lesson on the danger of succumbing to such desires.

In this sense Laura is the perfect victim of vampire literature. She is at once repulsed and drawn to the vampire, both wishes to succumb to and withdraw from her feelings for the strange and beautiful creature. And the fact that the beautiful creature is an irresistibly lovely woman only makes her feelings more confusing.

I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. [...] I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence.

Laura isn’t alone in her feelings. While we are given to understand that most of her victims are of no importance to her, Carmilla is genuinely enamored of a few of them. She seems to have fallen for her victim.

With gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”

In these moments of frenzied rapture, she implies that for them to become one, Laura must die. To drink Laura’s blood was to become one with her forever. As it stands, Carmilla is the antithesis of the heteronormative and male-centered world to which vampires were constricted to after Dracula. It has inspired several remakes as well as a plethora of lesbian vampire tales, including a Canadian web series of the same name.

Given the historical context, it is not surprising that the novella did not gain much attention when it was initially written. Now that it’s been 145 years, it is time for Carmilla to rise from the grave.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Nov. 30 2016 12:30 PM

Meet Spring-Heeled Jack, the Leaping Devil That Terrorized Victorian England

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

In Victorian England, the scariest boogeyman was a fire-breathing devil-man who could jump unnaturally high. Some said he was demon, while others thought he was just an extraordinarily agile human, but no matter what you believed about the legend, Spring-Heeled Jack was a name that inspired fear among the folk.

His name survives today mainly in the form of plays and references in various forms of media, but his legend still holds a bit of the original creep factor it had when it first bubbled up out of the public consciousness.

Reports of the wraith that would become Spring-Heeled Jack first started to appear in 1837. As described in historian Mike Dash’s exhaustive history of the figure’s reported appearances, residents of a London neighborhood began to report bizarre attacks—really more like harassments— from “a ‘ghost, imp or devil’ in the shape of ‘a large white bull.’ ”

Nov. 29 2016 12:30 PM

Why We Love to Fly in Our Dreams

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

It's one of the stranger things about being human that we can spend all night flying and then wake up in our own beds.

A brief, very unscientific Facebook poll reveals that people treat this night pastime like a real hobby, with different flying strategies and concerns:

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“I kind of imagine a lightness in my chest and fling that ‘weightlessness’ in the direction that I so choose"

“I fly really close to the ground … kind of like a skateboard, but with no skateboard there"
"It was like superman, or a ghost. I didn't have to think about it any more than I think about walking."
"A couple times I had dreams where I could jump higher and higher 'til I was leaving the atmosphere and able to travel far distances by aiming my jumps."

Others stuck to swimming, flapping, or gliding motions. These contemporary dream-flyers join a storied legacy: In 1921, Mary Arnold-Foster described wearing a "flying dress," a "dress of straight close folds which fall three or four inches below my feet,” in order to hide the fact that she wasn’t walking like everyone else.

Does this sound a little boastful? It might be justified. If you find yourself soaring through the sky at night, you deserve a few stunned looks and pointing fingers. Dream-flying isn't necessarily a random fluke of neuron-firing—it says something about how you think.

The first thing dream scientists will tell you is that it’s very, very hard to study dreams. "It's difficult to get people to dream if you stick them in an fMRI machine," explains Dr. Tadas Stumbrys, a dream researcher at Vilnius University in Lithuania.

This hasn’t stopped people from trying. Psychologist Dr. Rainer Schönhammer has compiled scientific flying-dream explanations going back to the early 19th century. Many of the earliest guesses were physiological—1860s German psychologist Karl Scherner thought that the rising and falling of the chest inspired dream flight, while his peer J.E. Purkinje believed that the relaxation inherent in sleep makes dreamers feel like they’re floating. The more Freudian Paul Federn pinned it on nighttime erections, which, author Diedre Barret explains, he "viewed as an overcoming of gravity," but this theory has since been discounted. More recent theories have focused instead on the brain stem and the inner ear, which controls balance.

Although he doesn’t knock the potential physiological causes of dream-flying, Dr. Michael Schredl, a psychologist with the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, is more interested in what such dreams and such distinctions might say about the dreamer. "Flying dreams are a fascinating topic," Schredl writes in an email. In a series of studies, Schredl has sought to connect the prevalence of flying dreams with particular personality traits or life choices. By compiling dream data gathered since 1956 and performing both broad and deep surveys of his own, he has come to a few zooming conclusions.

First of all—anecdotally at least—”persons with waking-life flying experiences dream more often about flying,” Schredl writes. Hang gliding instructors, for instance, often practice their professions in dreams, only without their equipment. And the fact that the frequency of flying dreams has picked up since the 1950s suggests that more real-life airplane trips equals more somni-flight. This would be consistent with the “continuity hypothesis” of dreams, a somewhat controversial theory that posits that our dream experiences are just weird remixes of our waking ones.

To dig deeper into these hypotheses, Schredl analyzed the 6,000-entry dreambank of one particular anonymous subject, who has kept a diary since 1984. Schredl found that although this subject had more airplane dreams after his first ever real-life transatlantic flight, more creative flying dreams weren’t affected. The subject sometimes flew with the help of a house, a magical juggling ball, or a unicycle, and he did so in order to illicitly cross borders and to impress a girl (“and he succeeded!,” the study makes sure to point out).

Airplane journeys, Schredl writes, may be less important than general happiness. A broader Schredl-helmed study shows that overall, people with more “positive emotional states” while awake tend to get to fly in their sleep, too.

For some more deliberate dreamers, dream-flying is not a quirk of physicality or personality but a conscious unconscious decision. Stumbrys studies lucid dreaming–a type of dream where the dreamer knows he or she is sleeping and can control certain aspects of the situation. For a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Psychology, Stumbrys and his colleagues (including Schredl) surveyed 684 lucid dreamers about their most common dreamworld activities. “Flying came in at No. 1,” Stumbrys said in a recent Skype interview—a full one-third of people reported some amount of dream-flying. It beat out a number of other common pastimes, including sex, sports, and “fighting, killing, or weapons” (along with some less popular ones, such as “looking at hands” and “crying or screaming”).

Lucid dreamers are, to a certain extent, able to plan their dream activities while awake, and even more of those studied—a full half!—made plans to fly. These plans may have informed their flying styles, posits Stumbrys. “In lucid dreams, your expectations really shape the dream,” he says. So if your waking self pictures Superman while you’re plotting out your dream itinerary, “that idea will be in your mind, and that will be the way you can fly.”

Stumbrys is careful to point out that the relationship between lucid dreams and flying isn’t necessarily causative. “It might be that people who lucid-dream, one of their favorite activities is flying,” so they take advantage of their insider knowledge to take off, he says. On the other hand, though, flying might cause lucidity: “if you discover that you’re flying,” he points out, “that’s a good sign that you might be in a dream.”

In Stumbrys’ first lucid dream, which was so impactful that it kicked off his whole professional career, he nearly flew out of a window but as he stood on the sill, he realized his fear of heights had crossed over to the dreamworld with him. By now, though, he indulges frequently. “The feeling is really amazing,” he says. “If I don’t have any other plans, usually I will just fly.”

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Nov. 28 2016 12:30 PM

Yokoi’s World War II Cave

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

The accepted date for the end of World War II is Aug. 14, 1945, even if Japan did not formally surrender until Sept. 2. What some people don't know, however, is that for many Japanese soldiers, the war ended much later.

An official count of 127 so-called holdouts or stragglers surrendered in various places in the Pacific Area between 1947 and 1974. This number does not include the many who died in their hiding places, only discovered decades later.

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For these holdout soldiers, strong militaristic principles made surrender impossible. They believed in what their military leaders told them, that it was better to die or be captured than surrender. In some cases, they did not even know about the end of the war. Some of the holdouts continued fighting the American troops or later the police; others just went into hiding. The stragglers believed it impossible to return to Japan, as they feared to be treated as deserters and punished with the death penalty.

One of those stragglers was Yokoi Shoichi, a tailor by trade, conscripted to the Japanese Army in 1941. Making it to the rank of a sergeant, he was part of the Japanese Forces on Guam when the American troops under Gen.l Douglas MacArthur conquered the island in summer 1944. U.S. forces advanced fast, and while many Japanese soldiers were captured or killed, Yokoi, in a group of 10, retreated deep into the jungle.

The 10 men quickly realized that such a big group would be easily discovered. Seven of them left to go to other areas; what happened to them is unknown. The three remaining men, Yokoi included, split up to different hiding places in the area but kept visiting each other. The three men heard that the war was over around 1952. They were not sure if the information was true and feared for their lives if they were captured or surrendered, so they decided to stay in hiding. Around 1964, when Yokoi wanted to visit the other two men, he found them dead and buried them. He believes that they died of starvation. Other sources say they died in a flood.

It took Yokoi three months to dig his “cave,” not far from the Talofofo Falls, about 7 feet underground. Supported by large bamboo canes, the small underground room was about 3 feet high and 9 feet long, with a hideable small entrance and a second opening as air supply. Inside he hid all day and stored his few belongings. Yokoi only left his cave at night and lived from caught fish, frogs, snakes or rats and learned to use the unknown fruits and vegetables he found. Two of his biggest treasures were a self-made eel trap, and a self-made loom, with which he made clothes from local fibers of the hibiscus bark.

Finally in 1972 two local fishermen discovered Yokoi on the banks of the river Talofofo and when, afraid for his life, he charged them, they captured him. He begged the two men to kill him. Instead they took him home, fed him his first real meal in 28 years, and brought him to the authorities. Two weeks later Yokoi returned to Japan and was welcomed as a hero. He himself thought differently about that. His famous words were: "It is with much embarrassment, but I have returned."

After Yokoi's death at age 82, the original cave was protected as a historical monument but collapsed. In its place a replica of the cave was erected along with a shrine and memorials for the last three Japanese stragglers. Some of Yokoi's belongings from the time in the cave can be seen in a museum at the entrance of the Talofofo Falls Resort Park.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Nov. 25 2016 12:30 PM

What Was Wrong With 16th-Century Europeans That They Didn’t Like Tomatoes?

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us onTwitter.

There are some people who don't like tomatoes. It's confusing, and wrong, but a fact. However, this reporter believes that tomatoes are the perfect food. As this summer fruit comes into season on the East Coast, if they are red, ripe, and juicy, I could eat them for every meal—sprinkled with salt and drizzled in olive oil, set between two pieces of mayo-slathered bread (Harriet the Spy–style), as a BLT, the best sandwich ever invented, or in basically any combination with corn. Or basil. Or cheese.

Back when tomatoes first came from this side of the Atlantic to Europe, though, Europeans were a whole continent of tomato skeptics. They grew them only in gardens—as ornamental plants—and ate them rarely, if ever. And as a tomato lover, I wondered—what was 16th-century Europeans’ problem? How did they not fall in love with tomatoes at their first opportunity?

It seemed unlikely that the tomatoes themselves were the issue. South and Central Americans had already done the long work of domesticating the tomato plant; the seeds that Spanish travelers brought back grew lumpy red tomatoes similar to today’s “heirloom” varieties. In southern Spain, where tomatoes were first grown in Europe, the climate was favorable for tomato plants, and it seems likely that tomatoes would have been eaten freshly pulled from the vine, i.e., in their ideal state.

Perhaps the problem was the way Europeans were preparing them. Faced with this new, daring food, what did they do with it? If I could try out the recipes they were using, I might be able to understand why they didn’t take to tomatoes.

Nov. 24 2016 8:30 AM

The Giant Ghibli Clock

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Officially called the “NI-TELE Really BIG Clock,” four or five times a day this wacked out symphonic mega machine spins, dances, whirs, and clanks. And as a side gig, it also tells the time.

The giant clock is in the Shiodome section of Tokyo, at the Nittele Tower (headquarters of Nippon Television). It was designed by Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, and while it’s not exactly drawn from his 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s been likened to the aesthetic of the anime classic.

Nov. 23 2016 12:30 PM

Exploring the Strange Pleasures of Cockaigne, a Medieval Peasant’s Dream World

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or follow us onTwitter.

The dream of the common person’s utopia was more than a little bit different during medieval times. Whereas today we have visions of lands o’ plenty like a huge mountain made of rock candy, the common peasant living in the muck and the mire of medieval Europe had a whimsical, satirical dream land known as Cockaigne.

While there have been many different versions of Cockaigne appearing in literature throughout the ages, in general, the Land of Cockaigne was a medieval dream world where the regular order things was flipped on its head. In Cockaigne, the poor would be rich, food and sex were freely available, and sloth was treasured and respected above all else. It was often portrayed as the perfect daydream of the common peasant, a place where the drudgery and struggle of medieval life was nowhere to be seen. However, even though it was depicted as a serf’s perfect world, it’s unclear how aware of the concept of Cockaigne the average person would have been.

This literal land of milk and honey made its mark in the popular imagination thanks to countless poems and writings that began to appear all across medieval Europe from the 1300s onward. “It’s very hard to say how well common people would have known of Cockaigne,” says Karma Lochrie, author of the book Nowhere in the Middle Ages, which looks at the medieval origins of utopian thought. “We know that visions of Cockaigne existed in all major European languages in the Middle Ages and beyond, but these visions would have only been accessible to elite readers who could read.”

Nonetheless, with the spread of the printing press, tales and poems of Cockaigne became widespread enough that they would eventually reach a wider audience. As Lochrie says, while there are a great number of versions of Cockaigne, the most widely known account is a poem from around 1350 called“The Land of Cockaygne.” Contained in what is thought to have been a friar’s notebook, the poem details many of the barely imaginable wonders that Cockaigne had to offer and gives us an unforgettable look into both the nature of the satire and the aspirations of people of the time.

In the poem, Cockaigne is said to lie somewhere west of Spain, but in reality the promised land never had any concrete location on the map. “[L]ike Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, one of the recurring features of Cockaigne is that we don’t know where it’s located,” says Lochrie. “It’s somewhere and nowhere, in effect.” But although Cockaigne doesn’t have a concrete location, the authors of the poem knew how to get there. As Lochrie pointed out, the final lines of the poem say that in order to reach Cockaigne, one must bury oneself up to one's chin in pig shit, as a sort of backward version of a purifying ritual. Yeesh.

Nov. 22 2016 12:30 PM

The Giant Permafrost Tunnel Used for Training in Alaska

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Almost a quarter of the land of the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, and about a third of that is in the western half of North America. This includes an area near Fairbanks, Alaska, where the Army Corps of Engineers has a permafrost tunnel as part of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, or CRREL.

The CRREL tunnel is roomy, about 360 feet long, 6-to-8 feet high, and about 15 feet wide. It’s rich with frozen animal and plant remains, fossils of all kinds, and layers of frozen silt, sand, gravel and bedrock. The space is comprised of an adit (just a more impressive word for access portal) and a winze (a term used in mining to describe sections that adjusts for differing levels or depths), and given its Army Corps parentage, it’s a feat of engineering.

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The tunnel started out in the early 1960s as a kind of training camp, for the Corps to learn more about excavating permafrost. In the later 1960s, it was used for similar purposes by the Bureau of Mines to test permafrost mining techniques. Ultimately though, the tunnel has proven its value as a science lab, turning the exposed walls into a frozen classroom on how permafrost behaves, how fossils and sediment have piled up over the epochs, and how the layers may be altered by climate change.

Permafrost is simply a frozen state of ground, not necessarily icy (although it can include ice in its makeup). It’s defined by temperature, not water content, so if the ground—be it soil, rock, peat, sand or river sediment—maintains a temperature of zero degrees Celsius or lower, you’ve got permafrost.

The exposure caused by tunneling has created a paradoxical engineering dilemma for the Corps: how to keep it frozen when outside air is circulating throughout. CRREL has figured that out too. In the winter there is a system of funneling the outside air back in. In the summer, they’ve got some very fancy air conditioning.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

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