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Quicksand forms in saturated loose sand when the sand is suddenly agitated. When water in the sand cannot escape, it creates a liquefied soil that loses strength and cannot support weight. Quicksand can form in standing water or in upwards flowing water (as from an artesian spring). In the case of upwards flowing water, seepage forces oppose the force of gravity and suspend the soil particles.
The saturated sediment may appear quite solid until a sudden change in pressure or shock initiates liquefaction. This causes the sand to form a suspension and lose strength. The cushioning of water gives quicksand, and other liquefied sediments, a spongy, fluidlike texture. Objects in liquefied sand sink to the level at which the weight of the object is equal to the weight of the displaced soil/water mix and the submerged object floats due to its buoyancy.
Liquefaction is a special case of quicksand. In this case, sudden earthquake forces immediately increase the pore pressure of shallow groundwater. The saturated liquefied soil loses strength, causing buildings or other objects on that surface to sink or fall.
Quicksand is a shear thinning non-Newtonian fluid: when undisturbed, it often appears to be solid ("gel" form), but a minor (less than 1%) change in the stress on the quicksand will cause a sudden decrease in its viscosity ("sol" form). After an initial disturbance—such as a person attempting to walk on it—the water and sand in the quicksand separate and dense regions of sand sediment form; it is because of the formation of these high volume fraction regions that the viscosity of the quicksand seems to decrease suddenly. Someone stepping on it will start to sink. To move within the quicksand, a person or object must apply sufficient pressure on the compacted sand to re-introduce enough water to liquefy it. The forces required to do this are quite large: to remove a foot from quicksand at a speed of 0.01 m/s would require the same amount of force as "that needed to lift a medium-sized car."
Contrary to popular belief, quicksand itself is harmless: a human or animal is unlikely to sink entirely into quicksand and drown at all due to the higher density of the fluid (assuming the quicksand is on dry ground and not under water, but even if underwater, sinking is still impractical). Quicksand has a density of about 2 grams per milliliter, whereas the density of the human body is only about 1 gram per milliliter. At that level of density, sinking in quicksand is impossible. Descending about up to the waist is possible, but not any further. Even objects with a higher density than quicksand will float on it—until they move. Aluminum, for example, has a density of about 2.7 grams per milliliter, but a piece of aluminum will float on top of quicksand until motion causes the sand to liquefy.
Continued or panicked movement, however, may cause a person in quicksand to sink deeper, leading to belief that quicksand is dangerous. Since it increasingly impairs movement, this, then, can lead to a situation where other factors such as weather exposure, dehydration, hypothermia, tides or carnivores may harm a trapped person.
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People falling into (and, unrealistically, being submerged in) quicksand or a similar substance is a trope of adventure fiction, notably in movies. According to Slate, this gimmick had its heyday in the 1960s, when almost 3% of all films showed someone sinking in mud, sand, or clay. For instance, T.E. Lawrence's servant boy Daud dies in quicksand in a scene in the 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Actor Al Mulock's character dies by falling into a quicksand pit in the 1959 adventure Tarzan's Greatest Adventure. In 1960's Tarzan the Magnificent Gordon Scott and Jock Mahoney hide from John Carradine in a pit of African Black Quicksand. The proliferation of quicksand scenes in movies has given rise to an Internet subculture scene dedicated to the topic.
Television programs of the 1950s–1960s likewise portrayed the perils of quicksand in dramatic fashion. In the Western television program The Rifleman, for example, two teens are portrayed venturing into a swamp and sinking in quicksand up to their necks, frantically yelling for help until rescued by the title character, Lucas McCain, in the episode "Old Tony," which ended the series' final season in 1963 (episode #168).
In an episode of Batman, the Dynamic Duo fall into quicksand, and Batman (more or less correctly) instructs Robin to "stay perfectly still," whereupon they sink to an equilibrium level (implausibly just below the lower lip).
One of the earliest popular fictional references to quicksand occurs in Les Misérables, wherein Victor Hugo dedicates two chapters to the subject in volume Jean Valjean, Book Third--Mire, but Soul, Chapter V, For Sand as well as Woman There Is a Finesse which Is Perfidy, and Chapter VI, The Fontis. Chapter V relates supposed actual incidents of individuals and animals sinking to their death in quicksand on the seashore, while chapter VI describes Jean Valjean valiantly carrying the body of Marius above his head as he wades through a face-high quicksand pit in the Paris sewers. In Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Pavilion on the Links, quicksand plays an important role.
The primary action of Ernest Hemingway's short story "After the Storm" centers around the protagonist's discovery of a recently-sunken liner in the Gulf coast. The tension builds as he dives repeatedly in an attempt to break open a porthole window. As the story comes to a close the protagonist hypothesizes the cause for the ship's demise, believing that when the storm came in the ship must have drifted toward the bed of quicksand, catching a rudder and causing it to break off. "They must have opened the tanks as soon as she struck and the minute she settled on it the quicksands took her down." It is also a notable example of his use of polysyndeton styling in his work.
The Tamil-language movie Mella Thirandhathu Kadhavu uses quicksand as a major plot point in the flashback parts of the protagonist's story. Quicksand also features heavily in the Bengali novel Chorabali (Bengali for "quicksand"), in the Byomkesh Bakshi detective series by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.
In Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, Bart and Charlie ride a handcar into quicksand and are almost submerged. The cart is pulled out by Taggart and Lyle, completely ignoring Bart and Charlie, who are forced to escape on their own.
As late as the 1980s, the film Southern Comfort showed a character named Stuckey (Lewis Smith) as a National Guardsman out on bivouac with fellow soldiers when the team becomes lost in the Louisiana Bayou. Stuckey is swallowed up quickly after falling into a quicksand pit as a helicopter is searching for him.
Pete Seeger's song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" mentions someone drowning after getting stuck in quicksand. The Charlie Daniels Band song "The Legend of Wooley Swamp" mentions three young men who drown in quicksand shortly after killing and robbing an elderly man and trying to get away with the money they stole.
- Khaldoun, A., E. Eiser, G. H. Wegdam, and Daniel Bonn. 2005. "Rheology: Liquefaction of quicksand under stress." Nature 437 (29 Sept.): 635. doi:10.1038/437635a
- Discovery Channel. MythBusters. Season 2. "Killer Quicksand." October 20, 2004.
- Bakalarfor, Nicholas (September 28, 2005). "Quicksand Science: Why It Traps, How to Escape". National Geographic News. Retrieved October 9, 2011.
- Engber, Daniel (23 August 2010). "Terra Infirma: The rise and fall of quicksand.". Slate. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
- The AFI Catalog of Feature Films:..Southern Comfort
- Seeger, Pete. "HOW WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG MUDDY FINALLY GOT ON NETWORK TELEVISION IN 1968". Pete Seeger Appreciation. Jim Capaldi. Archived from the original on August 5, 2013. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
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