Scientists may have cracked the giant Siberian crater mystery — and the news isn’t good


A crater, discovered recently in the Yamal Peninsula, in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia. (AP Photo/Associated Press Television)

Researchers have long contended that the epicenter of global warming is also farthest from the reach of humanity. It’s in the barren landscapes of the frozen North, where red-cheeked children wear fur, the sun barely rises in the winter and temperatures can plunge dozens of degrees below zero. Such a place is the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, translated as “the ends of the Earth,” a desolate spit of land where a group called the Nenets live.

By now, you’ve heard of the crater on the Yamal Peninsula. It’s the one that suddenly appeared, yawning nearly 100 feet in diameter, and made several rounds in the global viral media machine. The adjectives most often used to describe it: giant, mysterious, curious. Scientists were subsequently “baffled.” Locals were “mystified.” There were whispers that aliens were responsible. Nearby residents peddled theories of “bright flashes” and “celestial bodies.”

The Russian Academy of Sciences is researching a mysterious crater in northern Russia. The crater was first discovered by video taken from a helicopter that went viral. (Reuters)

 

There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

RELATED: “Meet the mysterious microbes fueling climate change

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

The scientist said the methane release may be related to Yamal’s unusually hot summers in 2012 and 2013, which were warmer by an average of 5 degrees Celsius. “As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground,” the report stated.


A crater located in the permafrost about 18 miles from a huge gas field north of the regional capital of Salekhard, roughly 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, on June 16, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

Plekhanov explained to Nature that the conclusion is preliminary. He would like to study how much methane is contained in the air trapped inside the crater’s walls. Such a task, however, could be difficult. “Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” the researcher told the science publication. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running; it’s rather spooky.”

“Gas pressure increased until it was high enough to push away the overlaying layers in a powerful injection, forming the crater,” explained geochemist Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, adding that he’s never seen anything like the crater.

Some scientists contend the thawing of such terrain, rife with centuries of carbon, would release incredible amounts of methane gas and affect global temperatures. “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane gas] on climate change is over 20 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period,” reported the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the Associated Press put it in 2010, the melting of Siberia’s permafrost is “a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere.”

Researchers with Stockholm University’s Department of Applied Environmental Science recently witnessed methane releases in the East Siberian Arctic Ocean. They found that “elevated methane levels [were] about ten times higher than in background seawater,” wrote scientist Orjan Gustafsson on his blog last week. He added: “This was somewhat of a surprise … This is information that is crucial if we are to be able to provide scientific estimations of how these methane releases may develop in the future.”

NASA also found the situation to be precarious. “The fragile and rapidly changing Arctic region is home to large reservoirs of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” scientists wrote in 2012. It’s “vulnerable to being released into the atmosphere, where it can add to global warming.”

Now, as two additional craters have also recently been discovered in Siberia, researchers worry the craters may portend changes to local Siberian life. Two have appeared close to a large gas field. “If [a release] happens at the Bovanenkovskoye gas field that is only 30 kilometers away, it could lead to an accident, and the same if it happens in a village,” Russian scientist Plekhanov told Nature.

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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