How to Escape From Quicksand

By Susan Kruglinski|Monday, February 20, 2006

While visiting his wife's birthplace in Iran, physicist Daniel Bonn was told by locals that camels had been swallowed whole in a nearby field of quicksand. He wondered: Is quicksand really that deadly? So he scooped some of the sludge into a pickle jar and took it back to his lab at the University of Amsterdam. After analyzing the ingredients, Bonn and his colleagues filled a vat with homemade quicksand and started dropping things in. "The conventional Hollywood wisdom is that you can drown in quicksand. We very clearly demonstrated that you cannot," he says—if you keep your wits about you.

Bonn's experiment stripped a lot of the mystery from quicksand. The sample from Iran is made of clay, sand, and salt water mixed together to form a semisolid, with the grains loosely piled together. The sand grains stack up to make the quicksand look like a stable surface, but the whole framework will suddenly collapse under even minute pressure. As water rises and sand sinks, dense mud collects at the bottom. Superfine particles seem to be the secret ingredient that gives the mix its killer grip. Bonn calculates that pulling your foot out of saltwater quicksand could require the same force needed to lift a car.

The good news is that if you don't struggle, your body will naturally float atop the briny mud. With patience, you can wiggle your feet and let water trickle around them, eventually loosening the mud. If camels did die in the sludge in Iran, Bonn believes, it may have been simply because they kept thrashing around, attempting to escape, and died trying.

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