Quicksand Is a Real Thing. Here’s What You Need to Know.

When a Maine beachgoer recently got trapped in quicksand, the internet panicked. It’s real? Yes, it is. Here’s what you need to know about the storied phenomenon.

Man standing up to knees in natural quicksand river. He is wearing a bathing suit, and the mud is all around.

Quicksand forms when sand becomes saturated with water or air.

Photo by William.Visuals/Shutterstock

A beachgoer recently made headlines after becoming trapped in quicksand while collecting trash at Popham Beach State Park, a popular stretch of shore in Phippsburg, Maine. Jamie Acord told the Associated Press that she sunk hip-deep and “couldn’t feel the bottom.” Fortunately, Acord’s husband, Patrick, pulled her to safety, and she walked away shaken but uninjured. They were shocked to turn around and find that the “hole” she had fallen into had disappeared the moment she was extracted and had once again become imperceptible.

Sean Vaillancourt, a park manager, told WGME 13, the local CBS news affiliate, that Acord is not the only person to have fallen into quicksand at Popham Beach State Park this year. A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry explained to the AP that the patches of quicksand at Popham Beach State Park were formed as recently as this winter, when a nearby river changed course and moved close to popular areas of the beach. The river’s shift is believed to have resulted from storms that were possibly exacerbated by climate change.

Meanwhile, the news had the internet asking in unison, “Wait, is quicksand real?!”

The answer is yes.

What is quicksand?

Quicksand forms when sand becomes saturated with water or air. This saturation reduces the space between individual sand particles. Less space between the particles means less friction, so the sand becomes unstable and cannot support weight. Quicksand will look like any other stretch of sand, meaning most people won’t notice it until they unwittingly step into it. According to Scientific American, quicksand typically occurs near natural springs and riverbanks and at beaches at low tide. It is not common in deserts.

Can you die by sinking into quicksand?

As scary as that sounds, dying in quicksand is not a thing you need to actively worry about. Hollywood depictions of people becoming entirely submerged in quicksand in a matter of minutes, a common sight in flicks from the 1950s through the ’80s, are grossly inaccurate; scientific studies have shown a human cannot sink entirely into quicksand. While the lower half of the body may become submerged, the upper half will remain buoyant. This is because quicksand is denser than a human body. So, while trying to get out of quicksand may not be easy—and certainly doesn’t sound like a fun time—it’s rarely fatal.

What are the real dangers of quicksand?

That said, quicksand can become deadly under certain circumstances; for instance, someone trapped in quicksand at low tide is at risk of drowning when high tide rushes in and water levels rise.

How do you get out?

So, this all begs the question: What should you do if you fall into quicksand? Vaillancourt told WGME 13 that leaning forward or backward and spreading out your arms and legs can help you to get to the surface and maneuver your way to the edge of the quicksand. Hopefully there’s something to grab onto to pull yourself out or someone to grab your hand and help you up. Above all, staying calm is key.

Nathalie Alonso is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has also appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29, and Well+Good, among other publications.
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