What Exactly is Quicksand?

Quicksand is a staple hazard of adventure movies, TV shows and video games. Whenever a minor character needs to be killed off quickly, the hero needs someone to rescue, or danger needs to be introduced without calling the villain in, quicksand is there to fulfill the task and swallow an explorer whole. Conveniently, there’s always a pool of pasty goo sitting around somewhere, usually perfectly circular and somewhat hidden from the characters’ view. This shouldn’t come as a shock, but real quicksand isn’t exactly how Hollywood makes it out to be.

Quicksand is what happens when regular old sand or grainy soil gets mixed with water under the right conditions. Normally, sand/soil can support weight on top of it because the friction between the grains helps distribute the load across a large area. If enough water seeps up from an underground source and gets under and around each grain, though, the friction gets compromised and the soil and water become a suspension where the grains are floating around in the water. The ground loses a lot of its ability to support weight, and takes on a consistency somewhat like wet concrete. If you step on it, you’ll start to sink, though not necessarily to your doom.

Despite its frequency in fiction, complete submersion and death in quicksand doesn’t happen in real life. Objects sink only to the level at which their weight is equal to the weight of the displaced sand/water mix, and then the object floats due to its buoyancy. The average person is only going to sink to his or her waist, elbows or armpits, depending on what they’re wearing and carrying. People who die in quicksand don’t die because they sank all the way in, but because they weren’t able to get out quickly enough and were exposed to the elements — low temperatures, incoming tide, etc.

Because quicksand needs underground water to form, riverbanks, beaches, sand washes, alluvial fans, swamps, marshes, and areas with natural springs are the most common spots to find it. It can, and does, develop almost everywhere in the U.S., but the hotspots are the marshes and coasts of the Southeast, and the canyons of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

I'm Stuck in Quicksand Right Now. How Do I Escape?

It’s less difficult to get out than you might think. First, don’t struggle. Remember, you won’t sink all the way in, just to your hips or so if you’re not carrying a pack or wearing heavy gear. Flailing, however, makes you sink deeper by making the quicksand more fluid.

Now, to pull yourself out, start by leaning backwards. Yes, you’re putting more of your upper body in the sand, but it will spread your weight out a little more and improve your buoyancy. You’re basically going to backstroke yourself out from here. Kick your legs slowly to loosen the sand around them and then try to gently bring them up towards the surface. Once your legs and midsection are at or on the surface, gently and slowly paddle with your arms with short strokes along the surface of the quicksand - don’t submerge your hands or arms all the way and get them stuck.

Once you’ve paddled to the edge of more solid ground, pull yourself out. Depending on what type of soil the quicksand is made of and what type of shoes you’ve got on, you might have a hard time pulling your feet completely free because of the quicksand’s suctioning effects. Try and grab a stick and pry your shoes off, but don’t squirm too much or stick your hands in to pull them off.

Quicksand’s Evil Twin

There’s another type of quicksand that’s a little bit scarier than the regular stuff and can cause a person to sink completely — and very quickly. Fortunately, no one has ever confirmed a natural occurrence of it. It’s called dry quicksand and scientists only know it from conditions they created in the lab. Dry quicksand forms when grains of sand form a very loose structure that can barely hold its own weight, let alone yours. In the lab, it’s made by blowing air through the sand, but could be caused naturally by the gradual buildup of sand blown around in the air. Hypothetically, desert winds could create a patch of dry quicksand on the down-wind side of a dune.

While scientists haven’t confirmed dry quicksand in the wild, they don’t discount the possibility that it’s out there. It was a concern during the planning of the Apollo moon missions, and astronomers were worried that the battering of the moon by asteroids and meteorites might have ground some of its surface to a deep, loose layer of debris, soil and dust that would swallow the lunar module whole. To support the craft in the event of these conditions, NASA added large plates to the ends of its legs to help distribute weight.

We'll be answering 20 big questions like this one today. We'll plan more days like this, so if you have something you're dying to know, leave us a comment or tweet @mental_floss with the hashtag #bigquestions.

What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


More from mental floss studios