The "Gateway To The Underworld" Continues To Creep Open As Heatwaves And Wildfires Hit Siberia

The tadpole-shaped crack has been dubbed 'the gateway to the underworld' by locals in the Sakha Republic of Siberia. NASA Earth Observatory

In another on-brand move for 2020, Siberia’s “gateway to the underworld” is continuing to grow as the area becomes increasingly hit by climate change and wildfires. 

Officially known as the Batagaika megaslump, the 1-kilometer-long (0.62 miles) slash in the landscape can be found in the Sakha Republic of Siberia in Russia’s eastern depths. Before the 1960s, the tadpole-shaped crack was little more than an unassuming gully, but the tear has continued to rip open at an alarming rate over the past few decades amid rising temperatures that have thawed the permafrost in the area. 

If permafrost thawing occurs on a hillside that’s undercut by a stream, it can cause the soil to collapse and result in a "thaw slump," a kind of Arctic landslide. This occurs all over the Siberian Arctic, but none are more imposing than the one at Batagaika. Due to its imposing and otherwordly appearance, locals have dubbed the megaslump "the gateway to the underworld."

The megaslump has torn up a lot of land in the past 60 years, including some sacred sites of the Indigenous Siberian people, but it’s also provided scientists with a number of unprecedented insights. A study in 2017 found that the expanding megaslump is churning up soil and buried forests that have been frozen and locked away for 200,000 years, allowing scientists to study Earth's climate in the sediment record. 

According to NASA, Batagaika has revealed a number of ancient animals, including a Pleistocene horse, prehistoric steppe bison, cave lions, and wolves.

Wildfire season in Eastern Siberia in July 2020.  © Julia Petrenko/Greenpeace

With temperatures continuing to creep upwards in the area, melting ice water carries away sediment, widening its groove in the landscape. The situation has become even more severe this summer. Average temperatures in the Siberian Arctic recently were 10°C (18°F) above normal for June. One weather station in the far-north town of Verkhoyansk picked up a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) on June 20.

As Science reports, researchers are now wondering how this summer might affect the Batagaika megaslump. In the past few decades, the slump advanced about 10 meters per year, but that rate increased to 12 to 14 meters per year in 2016, the hottest year on record. While it’s yet to be proven, it’s a fairly safe bet that the rate the Batagaika megaslump expands will only further accelerate following this unseasonably hot year.

Just to add to the apocalyptic vibe in the area, huge swathes of the Eastern Siberia have recently been hit with some of the worst wildfires in recent memory.

“Russia’s sprawling Siberia region became a climate hotspot, heating up much faster than the rest of the planet,” Grigory Kuksin, Wildfire Unit Head of Greenpeace Russia, said in a statement.

“This summer has already brought extreme heatwaves, oil spills caused by thawing permafrost, and raging forest fires – what next before we finally act on climate?”

[H/T: Science]


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