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Alaska buildings without us


By Ned Rozell

In Alan Weisman¹s book, ³The World Without Us,² the author ponders ³a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.²

In his great thought experiment, Weisman travels around the world to explore that question, revealing that cockroaches and bedbugs would not fare well without our sloppiness and warmth, and that Theodore Roosevelt¹s granite face will stare down from Mount Rushmore for the next 7.2 million years.

Weisman devotes a chapter to buildings, going into detail on their natural, gradual destruction. It all begins with water, Weisman writes, quoting a farmer who said a sure way to destroy a barn is to cut an 18-inch hole in its roof.

Posed with the question of the fate of Alaska structures without us,
researchers with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks
agreed that the liquid stuff of life is the most powerful agent of demise.

³All it takes is water draining into the building for the failures to
start,² said product testing director Colin Craven, who noted the
spectacular, gradual death of a neglected Fairbanks hotel, accompanied by ³amazing blooms of mold and moss.²
³The water and air carry all the destruction potential we need by bringing microorganisms, by causing dissolution of minerals and corrosion,² he said.

³Of course, humans usually accelerate the process, as abandoned mines and military facilities get vandalized quickly before the elements have their chance. Without that, it would be a lot slower and more interesting.²

The research center¹s Ilya Benesch has witnessed the slower and more
interesting fade of a mining building in Poorman, Alaska, which benefitted from a still-intact tin roof. Built in the early 1900s, the structure, about 70 miles south of Ruby, was still in decent shape about 75 years later.

³Inside, tools were still on the shelves, (as were) duplicate and triplicate spare parts and rebuild sets for a lot of the equipment they used,² he said³The biggest issue was bears and porcupines that broke in and started making a mess of things.²

Most other structures, even those in the dry and cold interior of Alaska, where decomposition is on hold for half the year, don¹t fare so well.

³The old town of Chatanika (about 25 miles north of Fairbanks) was vibrant and occupied up into the 1930s and there is almost nothing left,² said Robbin Garber-Slaght, the center¹s product testing lab engineer. ³The camp that covered the whole hill is gone.²

She and others at the center noted that in an extreme climate like ours,
water eats a building from the inside as well as the outside.

The problem would start as soon as power stations run out of coal or diesel or natural gas and there¹s no one there to feed them. Dropping temperatures within buildings would then freeze pipes, water tanks and bottles of apple juice. The expansion of those frozen liquids liberates them from containers, and there the problems start, said research engineer Bruno Grunau.

³The spring thaw would ease these liquids right onto the floor of your home, hastening rot of the structure, and beginning the gently accelerating path toward decomposition,² he said.

The longevity of Alaska buildings depends largely upon the materials
builders used, said Aaron Cooke, an architectural designer.

³Organic stuff goes first,² he said. ³Metals rust second, and ceramics last the longest. Except for maybe stainless steel.

³In Shaktoolik, which is prone to violent storms, the old village school
(circa 1940) had its wooden body obliterated,² he said. ³The concrete
foundation remains.²

Some people think concrete is less enduring in the north, but it holds up for a long time when a building is not heated, Cooke said.

³As soon as they go cold, they can't damage the ground anymore (by warming the permafrost), which means that they can't damage themselves (by wrecking their foundations). Ironically, there are some buildings in the high arctic that would last far longer without us in them.²

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