The curious case of the massive crater that just appeared at ‘the end of the Earth’


Reindeer in the Russian peninsula of Yamal. (The Siberian Times)

Under no circumstance is the Russian peninsula of Yamal considered hospitable. Extending 435 miles into the Gulf of Ob, its subsoil is permanently frozen, chilled by temperatures that can plunge to 122 degrees below zero. The sun rarely shows in winter, and to locals called the Nenets, the name of the place translates to “the ends of the Earth.”

The Road to Bovanenkovo gas field. A massive crater is said to be 20 miles from the gas field in the Russian peninsula of Yamal. The crater was originally seen in a video originally shot by a TV station run by the Russian Defense Ministry — video which The Washington Post was unable to verify.(The Siberian Times)
The Road to Bovanenkovo gas field.(The Siberian Times)

As uninviting as all that sounds, it just got even less enticing. For reasons no one has yet figured out, a massive, 300-foot-wide crater has just appeared. Seemingly out of nowhere.

According to video originally shot by a TV station run by the Russian Ministry of Defense — video which The Washington Post was unable to verify — the crater appeared about 20 miles from Yamal’s biggest gas field, igniting an international intrigue.

But beyond the fact that the hole is there, and huge, and that everyone’s intrigued by it, there’s not that much concrete information to go on.

What caused it? It’s unclear. But the Siberian Times, for its part, is hot on the story. It reported “experts are confident” there’s a “scientific explanation.”

Yamal authorities are planning to dispatch experts from the Center for the Study of the Arctic and the Cryosphere Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences to investigate. The researchers plan to analyze and take samples of soil, water and even air around the giant crater.

One thing’s certain, a spokesman of the Yamal Emergencies Ministry said. “We can definitely say that it is not a meteorite,” the spokesman told the Siberian Times. “No details yet.”

Anna Kurchatova of the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Center contended an explosion caused it. But not a manmade one. No underground Russian missile silo did this. Rather it was global warming. Kurchatova said warming temperatures have caused an “alarming” permafrost melt in Arctic zones. According to this theory, the melting permafrost spewed gas until — pow! — pressure caused on explosion.

Others don’t blame gas emitted through global warming, but the gas that drives the Russian economy. “The Siberian area the crater was found in — the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, which lies approximately 20 miles from the Bovanenkovo gas field — is one of the most geologically young places on Earth,” according to the science Web site From Quarks to Quasars. “It also happens to be extremely rich in gas. In fact, it contains the largest natural gas reservoir in all of Russia (it might even be the largest gas reserve on the planet).”


A massive crater seen 20 miles from a gas field in the Russian peninsula of Yamal. The crater was originally seen in a video originally shot by a TV station run by the Russian Defense Ministry — video which The Washington Post was unable to verify.(The Siberian Times)

The article concluded that explosions in such terrain are not uncommon — especially in areas of substantial subsoil melt.

The crater may also have been caused by something called a “pingo.” That’s a block of underground ice that can push through the Earth to reach the surface, where it melts and leaves a hole behind. The region’s permafrost can be hundreds of feet thick, a width that may engender such an glacial push, Chris Fogwill, a polar scientist at the University of New South Wales, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“It’s just a remarkable land form,” he said. “This is obviously a very extreme version of that, and if there’s been any interaction with the gas in the area, that is a question that could only be answered by going there.”

 

Photos courtesy of The Siberian Times

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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