University brings permafrost science to the public

Photo credit: Molly Putman

To educate people about the freezing and thawing layers of sediment called permafrost, the University of Alaska, in conjunction with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, has put together a national traveling permafrost exhibit, titled “Under the Arctic: Digging into Permafrost.” In 2014, the project received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to bring the Alaska permafrost tunnels to the public.

Matthew Sturm, one of the project leads, said the idea for the exhibit came to him when he was giving tours of the permafrost tunnels—a project developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study permafrost in Fairbanks. Sturm is a professor of geophysics and heads the Snow Ice Permafrost Group at the Geophysical Institute on campus. The project team consists of Sturm, Laura Carson-Conner, Susanne Perin, Jessica Garron, Margaret Cysewski, and Santosh Panda.

“During my 26 years with the cold regions lab on Fort Wainwright, I gave a lot of permafrost tunnel tours,” Sturm said. “I gave well over 500 permafrost tunnel tours over 26 years. I think the tunnel’s a unique and amazing thing, and I started wondering if we couldn’t get people in the tunnel, if we couldn’t bring the tunnel to them in some better way.”

The purpose of the exhibit is to educate the public about how permafrost affects our climate. Sturm is hoping that this exhibit will not only educate the public, but give them a taste of something uniquely Alaskan as well. The project also aims to reach out to rural Alaska and has been brought to 37 villages across the state.

“Very few people really fully understand permafrost and what it does in climate. That’s sort of what the exhibit and the materials we bring to the villages do,” Sturm said.

Santosh Panda, who works with Sturm at the Geophysical Institute, is also part of the project. He values the project’s potential to educate the rest of the nation about links between permafrost and climate change.

“A lot of the people in the lower 48, or a majority of them, have very little idea about permafrost and what role it plays in our climate system,” Panda said, “so this traveling exhibit will travel to three different museums a year for eight years, and millions in the lower 48 will be able to learn about permafrost.”

The exhibit, which opens Friday Nov. 3, consists of a 2,000 square foot space housing a small replica of the permafrost tunnels in Fox, Alaska, as well as several other small features. The exhibit will open in Portland and after six months will move around the country.

Matt Mertes

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