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Lab Report: Core Ideas: Assessing Permafrost

Drilling permafrost
CCREL researcher Tom Douglas ’94 G’01 and Russell Beckerman drill permafrost cores for Professor Ian Baker's research. Photograph courtesy of Ian Baker.

Professor Ian Baker and Russell Beckerman ’19 recently headed underground in Fairbanks, Alaska, to drill into the permafrost that underlies 24 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere. Working in a permafrost tunnel operated by the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), Baker and Beckerman collected 21 nine-inch cores, some drilled from ice wedges and some from cemented silt consisting of rock and dust held together by ice.

Baker, an expert in materials, including ice and snow, plans to analyze the two types of cores, which are now stored at CRREL’s Hanover facility. “We are interested in how the microstructure is related to the mechanical properties and ultimately how the mechanical properties change as the permafrost warms up,” he says.

“I wanted to study permafrost because it poses such interesting and difficult problems to be solved by our generation,” says Beckerman, an engineering major. “Building structures on it is one challenge because it can crack and melt, creating sinkholes. Another issue is the high amounts of carbon and methane that get released when it thaws.”

In fact, says Baker, “there is twice as much carbon locked up in permafrost as in the atmosphere. As the planet warms this will be released.”  

Seeing permafrost in its natural state proved instructive, according to Baker. “There were fossils in the permafrost tunnel. We saw a mammoth shoulder bone and the tusk of an extinct bison,” he says. “The complexity of the structure and the size of the ice wedges was surprising. You can read about this in books, but seeing it in person gives one a different perspective.”

Categories: The Great Hall, Lab Reports

Tags: climate change, faculty, research, students

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