Stunning drone footage has revealed details of the one-kilometer-long gash in Russia’s Far East that forms the world’s most prominent permafrost crater. Locals in the Sakha Republic call it the “gateway to hell,” but scientists say it’s just another sign of how climate change is altering the icy landscape of Siberia. Known as a mega-slump, it formed after the surrounding forest was cleared in the 1960s, and the permafrost underground began to melt, causing the land to sink. It has since expanded, creating a vast depression slowly swallowing the ice-covered tundra.
Thawing permafrost is not only threatening cities and towns across the region but also buckling roadways and splitting apart houses, triggering massive wildfires and disrupting pipelines. But the biggest problem is the methane it’s unleashing. As the ground begins to thaw, pockets of ice-cold methane form and build up, putting such an immense amount of pressure that it can cause a crater to explode. The process is known as cryovolcanism. It was first spotted in northern Russia in 2014 when a TV crew from Vesti Yamal flew over the area while returning from an unrelated assignment and noticed a large funnel forming at the ground’s surface.
It’s not the only time such a phenomenon has happened. A spate of such craters has been spotted in the region over the last few years. According to Sue Natali, Arctic program director at Woodwell Climate Research Center, the explosions are caused by warmer air temperatures and melting permafrost that thaws and expands, releasing gases trapped in ice-cold soil. “Methane can explode when it comes in contact with water and oxygen,” she said. “That’s what happens when it gets pumped up through the surface of thawed permafrost.”
The growing hole in the ground exposes layers of sediment that can date back to the Ice Age and reveals the remains of extinct animals and plants, which researchers are keen to study. But it’s also releasing greenhouse gases that warm the planet, leading to a feedback loop where the thawing soil absorbs even more carbon dioxide, speeding up the process of global warming.
Scientists warn the expanding crater could soon become the norm as climate change continues to thaw the once-frozen tundra that covers much of Russia. According to a new analysis of satellite data by the US Geological Survey, the Batagaika Crater continues to expand at tens of meters a year, which could see it double in size over the next decade. Using data from the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) on the NASA Landsat 8 and Sentinel missions, the USGS has compiled a picture of the evolving crater over 60 years. This is the first time continuous images of the area have been gathered over a long period.