The scientific tourist #272 — a visit to the Permian Sea

Today we’re going to visit the Permian Sea.  But don’t worry, this won’t take long — it’s just a quick trip to Kansas.

Hutchinson, Kansas to be precise.

Should you ever find yourself in the middle of Kansas — maybe driving cross-country in the U.S. on interstate 70 — I’d recommend you stop in Hutchinson for the better part of a day.  Along with the Kansas Cosmosphere, you’ll also find the Kansas Underground Salt Museum — a fun and slightly geeky side-trip if ever there was one.

Kansas Underground Salt Museum

If you’re interested in geology and live in the Americas, this museum is a treat — there are only 15 active salt mines in the U.S., and this is the only such museum in the western hemisphere.  You’ll start on the surface in the visitors’ center, get a briefing and safety equipment.  Then it’s 650 feet (200 meters) straight down to the Permian — in the dark (because that’s the way the miners ride down to work).  No worries, because it’s only a 90 second ride, and they’ll even leave the lights on if you really have a problem with the dark.

A visit to the Permian Sea

These salt beds were laid down some 250 million years ago when a gulf of the Permian sea saw repeated cycles of drying and flooding.  So you’ll see layers of salt, of various shades, corresponding to the different amounts and colors of sediment that were washed into the sea from year to year.

This area has been mined for salt since 1923, using the room-and-pillar approach — the salt is removed in a checkerboard pattern, leaving large chambers between piers of salt that support the remaining ceiling.  All told, the excavations to date cover some 920 acres (370 hectares).

After the salt mines were done with this part of the salt beds, they moved on — and left behind acres of empty galleries.  This makes perfect space for the museum, and for storage of things needing stable humidity and temperature.  Regardless of the weather on the surface in Kansas, down here it’s always the same — 68 degrees F, with a relative humidity of 45%.

In the galleries

So in and amongst the exhibits showing old mining equipment and geological displays, you’ll also read about the artifacts stored nearby by Underground Vaults & Storage.  In a nearby 26 acre (10.5 hectare) section of galleries, the company provides secured storage for the original negatives of many Hollywood movies, medical records, and a variety of other valuable documents and objects.  The UV&S folks have their own display in the museum — of props and costumes from a variety of movies.

Should you manage to swing through town, a visit to the salt mine would be a good use of a few hours!

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