hike alone. Falling into quicksand and not being able to
get out by yourself can be fatal (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2006).
Being sucked into quicksand is a staple of many
'B' movies, but is this phenomenon of nature really as dangerous
as it is portrayed?
Jack Pickett and his friend Fred Stahl, both college
students, decided to spend the day looking for parasitic plants
in the swampland south of Florida's Lake Okeechobee. Pickett was
in the lead walking along the sandy bank of a small stream when
suddenly his feet disappeared into the sand. "It's soft here!
Stay back!" he warned his friend. The ground seemed to swallow
him up and he was quickly chest deep in thick muck. The sand pinned
his arms to his body as he struggled to release the heavy pack
on his back that was dragging him down. "It's quicksand!" he shouted,
"Help me!" Desperate to assist his friend, but fearing getting
trapped himself, Stahl searched for a tree branch to extend his
reach. Finding one, he held it out. Pickett couldn't free his
hands to grab the limb and sank deeper and deeper into the sand
until he simply disappeared…
The above is not a scene from a TV drama or action
film. This was a real incident that occurred in 1964. It's not
only people who vanish into quicksand, but animals, cars, trucks
and at least one railroad locomotive have disappeared without
a trace. What is quicksand and why does it seem to suck things
down? Well, despite the above story, most quicksand is not usually
deadly. However, it is a fascinating phenomenon of nature that
requires our careful respect.
and Flowing Water
Quicksand is formed when regular sand, mud or even
gravel comes in contact with a flowing water source, usually an
underground stream or spring. Under normal conditions the tiny
grains in sand or other material will rub up together with enough
force, or friction, to support the weight of someone or something
on top of it. You can see this when you go to the beach. Even
in loose, dry sand your foot only sinks a couple of inches before
the friction between the sand grains grows high enough to stop
you from going down any deeper. What if the something lessens
the friction between the sand particles? Would you go down further?
This lessening of the friction is exactly what happens
in quicksand. The flowing water moves between the particles of
sand and acts as a lubricant to reduce the friction. The grains
become suspended in the water and the sand changes to a liquefied
state. As long as the water keeps flowing, the quicksand bed will
exist. Small patches of quicksand appear at the edge of almost
every beach as the incoming waves force seawater in among the
sand particles at the waterline. That's why if you stand in the
surf you can feel your feet sinking into the sand a little bit
more with each new wave. Fortunately, this kind of quicksand is
rarely dangerous. The action of the waves only creates a quicksand
patch a few inches deep, not enough to trap even a child.
Quicksand that forms in a patch more that a few
inches deep, however, can be dangerous. Typically, despite stories
about quicksand beds with bottomless pits, most quicksand is only
waist deep. The biggest danger an adult faces in such a pit is
getting stuck and not being able to climb out by himself. If he
is alone, he can face death from starvation or exposure to the
cold. In some wilderness areas people trapped and unable to defend
themselves have been mauled by animals such as bears or wolves.
For this reason it is never a good idea to go hiking alone, especially
in areas where quicksand is known to exist.
Places with a lot of water may often have areas
of quicksand: marshes, rivers, creeks, seashores and swamps can
all have pools. Places with underground sources of water like
the Colorado Mountains and parts of Texas and Utah can also generate
quicksand beds. One place quicksand is almost never found is the
desert. Deserts have plenty of sand, but without water quicksand
Quicksand has existed as long as there has been
water on the planet. Some of our best preserved bones from dinosaurs
and other prehistoric creatures have come to us because these
animals got caught in a quicksand bed. Since the animals slide
rapidly under the sand it actually protects their remains from
weather damage and scavengers. Thousands or even millions of years
later when the quicksand has dried out and turned to sandstone,
paleontologists can dig out the bones and reconstruct the creatures'
skeletons. One interesting example of this was excavated in the
1960's at Tugrugeen in Outer Mongolia when two dinosaurs bones
were found locked in combat. A predatory velociraptor was found
on top of a herbivore rotoceratops which was sprawled on its back.
Scientists speculate that they were fighting when they fell into
a pool of quicksand and both died.
It is often difficult to spot a pool of quicksand
before walking into it. Leaves and sticks can lie on the top,
concealing the pit. A crust of dried sand can form on the top
hiding the liquefied material below until some steps on it and
falls through. Quicksand can also form underwater and can snag
people or animals as they attempt to cross rivers or walk along
the edge of ocean or lakes. In these situations drowning is a
to Escape the Water
Tidal flats can be particularly dangerous. In one
unfortunate case in September of 1988 a woman in Alaska got caught
in the mud flats near Turnagain. Adeana Dickinson and her husband
were using an ATV to cross the flats when the trailer they were
towing got stuck. She hoped off the back to push it out and her
legs got caught in the mud. The patch she was stuck in was not
light sand but powered rock, making the material particularly
heavy. Her husband worked for two hours and managed to free one
leg before the tide started coming in. Emergency rescue was called
and a team worked to free her, but was forced to back off and
watch her drown as the sea rose around them.
Should you fall into a patch of quicksand the first
thing to remember is not to panic. Thrashing about can get you
more stuck. Quicksand is a lot denser than water and a person
will float much more easily than in a pure liquid. It is important,
however, to quickly get rid of any weight you are carrying (like
a backpack) that might drag you down. While deep pits of quicksand
do exist, most are fairly shallow and you should be able to touch
bottom. If you cannot touch bottom it may be difficult to extract
yourself without help if you have nothing solid to push against.
The quicksand flows around legs and arms and trying to pull them
out creates suction. The best method to get out of a quicksand
bed if you can't push against solid ground or have somebody pull
you out with a rope is to try swimming out with slow, deliberate
motions. A scientist with the U.S. Geology Survey once fell into
quicksand while exploring the Colorado River. Unassisted he slowly
swam through the thick mud to solid land. It took him eight hours
to move just ten feet, but he was able to walk away from the experience
Occasionally unusual conditions can liquefy the
ground that was solid a few minutes before. In the 1800's a Kansas
Pacific Railroad train fell into a quicksand creek bed during
a flood. While some of the cars were recovered, the 200-ton engine
sank so deeply into the liquefied ground that it was never seen
Earthquakes can also change the solidity of the
ground. When the pressures and vibrations created by the quake
reach damp soil, they can increase the water pressure in the soil,
pushing apart the particles and reducing friction. The lowered
friction allows the ground to suddenly liquefy. Since much of
man's infrastructures are built on the assumption that the ground
is solid, such a change can have devastating effects on structures.
During the great 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, gas and water
pipes snapped as the ground around them started moving. The resulting
gas leaks led to fires around the city and the damage to water
lines meant there was no way to put them out. In 1964 liquefaction
during an earthquake in Niigata, Japan, caused apartment houses
to tip over like dominos as portions of their foundations could
no longer support their weight. Fortunately the buildings toppled
over slowly and stayed intact, allowing residents to escape by
climbing out their windows and walking down the face of the building
which was now level with the ground.
Liquefaction of the ground during an earthquake
is fairly rare and scientists and engineers are working on ways
to predict what areas might be subject to turning into quicksand
and how to protect structures if it does. It is more likely that
the average person will run into quicksand on a hike or along
the beach rather than during an earthquake.
An encounter with quicksand need not be a disaster,
as pictured in Hollywood movies or TV. Common sense can help people
avoid quicksand beds in the first place and keeping calm will
assist them should they fall in. Quicksand is not some supernatural
creature trying to gobble down anyone that falls into its clutches,
but it is an interesting and potentially dangerous phenomenon
Monstrous Mysteries by Lynne Snifka ,Alaska Magazine 2004. http://www.alaskamagazine.com/stories/1004/feature_mystery.shtml
Quicksand by Kris Hirschmann, Kidhaven Press, 2003.
1964 Earthquake Niigata by Jörgen Johansson, Japan Department
of Civil Engineering, University of Washington, January 27 2000.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2006. All Rights Reserved.