Water Closet for 8-30-13 GOSSAMER CRYSTALS

Scientist Arthur McKee[1] friend of Middleton Stream Team member Katharine Brown has sent the Water Closet another vivid description of water in a form only a very few ever see.  He let us use his Chena Moose story in our August 16, 2013 Water Closet.


In the mid 60s, I was a technician on a research project working out of the US Navy’s Arctic Research Laboratory (ARL) a few miles north of Barrow, Alaska.  ARL served as a logistics base for many research programs in the American arctic conducted by scientists from federal and state agencies as well as universities.  It was a great place to be a young biologist.  Everyone ate together in a big mess hall and you might find yourself sitting with people studying all kinds of different things from whale anatomy to lemming irruptions to walrus physiology to wolverine feeding behavior to plankton dynamics to global CO2 fluxes.  ARL hosted a rich mix of disciplines and skills, but was a small enough community that everyone got to know each other pretty quickly.

One weekend, a person who maintained seismographs for the US Geological Survey asked me if I’d like to go with him when he serviced his instruments.  It sounded interesting, and we walked a quarter mile or so to what looked like a heavily insulated garage, opened the door and stepped into the above-ground part of a multi-level freezer excavated out of the thick permafrost, which near Barrow was 1000-plus feet of frozen fine sediments (sand and silt) and well below zero in temperature.  An elevator shaft had been sunk down four or five stories in the permafrost with long corridors branching off in opposing directions at the different levels, and with storage areas off either side of the corridors some 8 feet wide, deep and tall.  This had been built to store perishables for the exploration of Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 south and east of Barrow in the late 40s/early 50s.  It’s still a designated petroleum reserve.

At that time, use of the below-ground “freezer” was light, with just the top two levels providing more than enough storage area.  The USGS had capitalized on this place to install a couple of seismographs, mounted firmly on knee-high ice platforms created by pouring water into a box on the frozen dirt floor at the end of one of the deepest corridors and letting the instrument’s base get frozen in solid.  It might as well have been bolted down to a granite outcrop.  The seismographs served two purposes: 1) record tremors from earthquakes around the globe, and 2) track nuclear bomb testing by the Soviet Union and our allies.  On the wall in the USGS office at ARL, the seismograph’s recorded trace of the big quake near Anchorage in 1964 was proudly displayed as evidence of the basic seismological research.  But, oddly, no recorded traces of atomic and hydrogen bomb detonations were displayed; they were quickly shipped to some Department of Defense office in the lower 48.  In conversations with the tech, it became clear that the REAL reason for maintaining the instruments near Barrow was knowing the number and sizes of bombs being tested.

That’s all prelude and tangential to the most memorable part of that day’s trip into the permafrost freezer.  As the open-sided elevator descended, the track of which was bolted directly into the frozen sediments, I could see many frost crystals hanging on the metal sides of the elevator, its track, and the permafrost walls.  But the size and complexity of the crystals dramatically increased as we descended.  When the door opened to the lowest level, palm-sized to saucer-sized, thin hexagonal crystals covered the walls opposite the door.

The corridors at each level were illuminated by low-watt incandescent bulbs at 20- or 25-ft intervals, screwed onto the permafrost ceiling.  The corridor leading to the seismograph was decorated by the same hexagonal crystals of water, but they increased in size as you walked away from the elevator.  The hallway to the instrument, originally 9- or 10-feet in width was reduced to maybe 7 feet by the crystals growing out of the permafrost walls.  Most were hexagonal discs, 4- to 10-inches in diameter and a millimeter or less thick, with fine lines paralleling the outer edges showing how the crystals grew.  They reflected and refracted the dim light from the overhead bulbs such that it seemed to not diminish but be multiplied.  There was plenty of light for the USGS tech to work on the instruments.

I’d made several wow-like comments on the size and delicacy of the crystals, obviously in awe of their beauty, and he jokingly replied, “You ain’t seen nothin’ partner!”  And, he was right!

As we walked back toward the elevator, he told me the inventory records showed that nothing had been stored on that lowest level since the early 50s, 10-plus years had passed since there’d been any traffic along the corridor the other side of the elevator from the seismographs except for the USGS tech and his predecessors.  He’d walked down that corridor maybe three times in the couple of years he’d been servicing the instruments.  Just looking down that hallway was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, with many crystal shapes juxtaposed and overlaying the basic random pattern of hexagonals protruding at many different angles – it was literally fantastic!

I slowly walked along the corridor, slowly because the mere movement created gentle puffs too strong for some of the fragile crystalline forms, they’d fall apart with ghostly tinkling noises.  I’d look into the storage rooms off either side and they’d be filled with sparkling gossamer strands spanning inches and sometimes several feet between the spectacularly different configurations of more solid crystals: long, thin needle-like spines, dendritic snow-flakes the size of dinner plates, hexagonal planes intersecting at right angles, all interlaced with cobweb-like threads connecting the corners, edges and points of the crystals.

As we stood there, some would begin falling apart – apparently just from the “breeze” created by our talking.  Fragile just doesn’t come close.  It seemed all you had to do was look at some of the incredibly delicate constructions and they’d collapse into glittering dust that would sparkle as it drifted slowly to the floor.  The tech mentioned that he’d taken a photo of one of the storage rooms and that the flash had caused everything but the more robust of the hexagonals to disintegrate.  We walked down to the room he’d photographed and it was like the corridor by the elevator, totally unlike the rooms flanking it.

As we walked back to the elevator I realized that our passage produced a faint background noise of barely audible tinkling as some of the crystals collapsed.  Eerie and yet charmingly musical, sort of like snow falling, but much lighter while sounding sharper at the same time.

I vowed to go back and photograph the fantastic forms, but never had the chance.  I occasionally think about that crystalline kaleidoscope and wonder if the old permafrost freezer is still there and what nearly 50 more years of crystal formation might have produced.


1. Arthur McKee is Director Emeritus H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest Station in the Oregon Cascades.


THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com>