A giant 50 meter (164 foot) deep hole in the ground recently emerged in Yamal peninsula in northwest Russia. It was spotted by a TV crew that was flying by with a helicopter. The scientists claim that methane gas escaping from beneath melting permafrost has created the void. The explosive power of methane bubble has thrown chunks of ice and rock hundreds of meters away from the epicenter.
Already 17th giant void in Siberia
Permafrost is ground that is frozen all year round, occurring in the Arctic and mountainous regions. Due to the climate crisis, temperatures in the Arctic are increasing which in turn melts the land that has been frozen for hundreds of years. Beneath the permafrost, there are pockets of high atmospheric pressure, filled with of oil and gas. These pockets have been locked beneath 5-10 meters of frozen ground, but since the permafrost is melting, the contents of pockets is finding its way out. Usually they first form big swellings in the ground and then explode throwing rocks and ice hundreds of meters away. In a few years, water fill these giant voids.
There isn’t much research done on this phenomena, due to the remoteness of the area and lack of people living there. There are simply not enough eyes to observe swelling of the land and report it to scientists before it collapses.
The giant sinkholes in Yamal peninsula has been first recorded in 2014, after a series of unusually warm summers. So far, this giant void is at least 17th of its kind in the region. It is also the largest and most impressive one in the area.
Thawing permafrost causes concerns
Scientists have many reasons to be concerned about the thawing permafrost. Firstly, methane is 84 times more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Therefore, releasing vast amounts of this gas from permafrost could start a horrible feedback loop which would make climate crisis even more severe.
Secondly, thawing permafrost could release ancient diseases that we know nothing about. In 2016, a 12 year old boy was infected and died of anthrax. The disease was tracked back to thawing permafrost, which leaked ancient virus into the region’s water and soil.
Thirdly, exploding gas pockets are threatening buildings and other infrastructure. This year, melting permafrost caused the worst fuel spill in Arctic history. Scientists are worried that explosive sinkholes could affect much more pipelines, oil rigs and reservoirs in Yamal peninsula.
Even though huge sinkholes bring many concerns, there is nothing in particular we can do about it. The permafrost is melting due to the warming climate and likely vast sinkholes will become more common. Stopping climate crisis, before the cruel feedback loop starts, has to be our priority.