A Giant Gaping Crater Has Been Blasted Open In Siberia

In August 2020, the RAS Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, supported by the local Yamal authorities, conducted a major expedition to the new crater. Skoltech researchers were part of the final stages of that expedition. Image courtesy of Evgeny Chuvilin

A crater has been blasted open after an explosive bubble of methane gas popped beneath the ground in the remote tundra of Siberia, spraying chunks of rocks and soil hundreds of meters across the Yamal Peninsula. 

The giant hole was first spotted in northwest Siberia earlier this summer by a TV crew on their way to an unrelated assignment by helicopter. In August 2020, the new geological feature was given an official look-over by Yamal authorities, the RAS Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, and scientists at Skoltech, who hope to publish a scientific study on the crater in the near future. 

"The crater is fresh, it appeared this year in the central part of Yamal, its diameter exceeds 20 meters, and its depth is more than 30 meters," Evgeny Chuvilin, a leading research scientist at the Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery who has surveyed the crater, told IFLScience. "More detailed information will be published by us in the near future in a scientific article."

The colossal crater is the result of permafrost that’s been thawing from rising temperatures in the area. Permafrost is rocky soil or sediment that’s typically frozen year-round and contains huge stores of organic carbon and frozen microorganisms. As temperatures warm and the icy permafrost begins to thaw, bacteria and other microbes spring back to life and start pumping out methane under the damp and low-oxygen conditions. 

Occasionally, this methane can become trapped beneath the ground, which simultaneously becomes unstable from the thawing permafrost. Eventually, the reservoirs of gas build up enough pressure, and the next thing you know — kaboom! — a crater is formed.

In August 2020, the RAS Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, supported by the local Yamal authorities, conducted a major expedition to the new crater. Skoltech researchers were part of the final stages of that expedition. Image courtesy of Evgeny Chuvilin

Not only does this process leave behind these huge scars in the ground, it also raises the risk of flooding the atmosphere with more greenhouse gases, further driving the cycle of climate change. It’s also worth noting that methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas and has significantly more “warming power” than carbon dioxide.

When similar craters have been formed in the past, locals have reported hearing a loud noise and even seeing billows of smoke and flames. Unfortunately, scientists are yet to observe this explosive process in action. 

"So far they have been forming in remote and uninhabited places," adds Chuvilin. "But if that changes, they would pose a threat to infrastructure."

One of the most dramatic examples of geological disturbances from thawing permafrost can be seen in the Batagaika mega slump, better known as the “gateway to the underworld,” a 1-kilometer-long (0.62 miles) slash in the landscape in the Sakha Republic of Siberia in Russia’s eastern depths.

Researchers have previously linked the formation of some craters to warming temperatures in Siberia. For example, some scientists hypothesized that the Yamal Crater might have been formed in 2014 after a freakishly hot summer in 2012. Chuvilin explains that there is currently "limited evidence" this new crater was formed due to warming temperatures, but it is something researchers will be interested in investigating, not least because this summer has seen some unusually warm weather in Siberia. 

Back in June, temperatures reached a surprisingly scorching 38°C (100.4°F) in Verkhoyansk, a Siberia town above the Arctic Circle. While this freakishly hot summer has not been explicitly linked to climate change yet, it's clear that much of the Arctic is currently warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the planet due to a phenomenon called Arctic amplification.

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