The tundra is exploding in Siberia. Again.
A 50.29 m-deep crater has ripped open in the northwest region of what’s normally one of the coldest places on Earth. The past year, though, it’s been anything but, and the crater is just the latest sign of Siberia’s summer of hot discontent.
Journalists on assignment to cover something else entirely on the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia happened upon the perfectly concentric wound in the Earth. The footage showing the uninterrupted tundra marred by a pit to hell was shot in July but released over the weekend.
It looks like a bomb crater, but the reason for the hole isn’t an explosive dropped from above but rather what’s happening beneath the surface. The tundra of Siberia and in other parts of the world is undergird by permafrost, a frozen soil rich in the greenhouse gas methane. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is causing that soil to thaw, releasing methane into the atmosphere. Bad news for the planet, to be sure, since methane is a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide (permafrost can also release that, too, because of course it can). But changes in permafrost can also cause Earth to occasionally yeet a hunk of tundra into the sky.
Methane is also the main ingredient in natural gas, which, as you may happen to know, can catch fire or explode under pressure. Sue Natali, Arctic program director at Woodwell Climate Research Centre, said in an email that the gas can build up in pockets of unfrozen soil in the permafrost known as cryopegs.
“Warming and thawing of surface soil weakens the frozen ‘cap,’ resulting in the blowout that causes the craters,” she said.
The Yamal Peninsula has seen a spate of these craters since 2014. Natali said there haven’t been enough to peg them to any specific feature there, but the structure of the permafrost with a thick icy layer and widespread presence of cryopegs and methane-rich natural gas deposits could be one possible explanation for why it’s the crater capital of the Arctic.
Conditions aboveground this year certainly have increased the odds of blowouts. Across Siberia, things have been extremely hot and on fire. Temperatures raced to 100 degrees Fahrenheit 37.8 degrees Celsius in June, an exclamation point in what has been the hottest year on record for Russia so far. Wildfires have torn across the landscape since April, with some of them raging back to life after overwintering in carbon-rich peat soil. Temperatures in Russia averaged 6 to 8 degrees Celsius above normal this winter, with hotter pockets over Siberia. The heat likely weakened permafrost, priming it for all sorts of weird behaviour this summer. In addition to the explosion, permafrost collapse contributed to a huge diesel spill that contaminated a pristine Siberian lake.
And honestly, while the crater is certainly worthy of staring at in slack-jawed wonder, it’s the other permafrost impacts that are the most scary. Scientists have found millions of methane hot spots dotting the landscape, and the Arctic has become a net carbon dioxide emitter for the first time on record. That’s bad news for the climate. The less explosive forms of permafrost destruction are also wreaking havoc for those who call the Arctic home. As permafrost thaws, it can slump, erode, or simply flood the landscape by creating marshy formations known as thermokarst. That wrecks infrastructure from apartment buildings to traditional ice cellars, upending life there. As many as 4 million people could see their lives directly altered by midcentury if permafrost continues its more liquid and sometimes explosive transformation. And those changes will be permanent unless we act to cut emissions and slow the planet from warming ASAP.
“I think it is very likely that heat waves can and are triggering abrupt events in the Arctic,” Natali said. “This is pretty important, because these events (craters, thermokarsts) are largely irreversible.”