A bubble of methane gas, bulging underneath Siberia‘s melting permafrost for an unknown period, has exploded and formed a massive 5-meter-deep (164-foot-deep) crater. The impressive hole was first noticed by a TV crew that flew overhead, and, as per a report by The Siberian Times, when researchers went to examine it, they found chunks of ice and rock spread away from the epicenter.
It is not clear when the massive hole formed, but in 2014, something oddly similar was also observed on the Yamal peninsula in northwest Russia, after a few unusually warm summers. As a matter of fact, this is the 17th such ‘funnel’ found until now in the area and the largest of its kind in the last few years.
Giant new 50-metre deep 'crater' opens up in Arctic tundra. Blocks of soil and ice thrown hundreds of metres from epicentre of the funnel at the Yamal peninsula https://t.co/2fTA8GZRS4 #YamalFunnels2020 pic.twitter.com/t5CJRVwuRS
— The Siberian Times (@siberian_times) August 29, 2020
The giant holes are believed to be a result of the sudden collapse of hills, or swellings of tundra, which also form when melting permafrost causes an accumulation of methane underneath the surface.
What Triggered the Methane Opening
At the moment, the Arctic is experiencing a rapid collapse of its permafrost, and while the hole phenomenon is likely impacted by these changes, there are still not enough studies examining how warming specifically triggers their collapse.
That could be rather an oversight, however. Methane is about 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so the release of massive stores of this gas could cause vicious feedback that stands to make the current atmospheric conditions even more dreading.
Analyzing recorded imagery from the 1970s, a 2017 study discovered that Siberian funnels have expanded in the last few years, and this implies melting permafrost is at least partly responsible for these kinds of collapses and triggering the release of Arctic methane stores. That same year, another research found 7,000 gas pockets under the Yamal peninsula, where the newly found hole was.
However, we don’t know yet if these gas pockets are new or not, as permafrost covers about two-thirds of Russian territory in some of the most isolated and inaccessible regions of the world; therefore, there’s no enough information about it.
“The frost heaving that precedes a crater usually happens quite quickly, over one to two years, and this sudden growth is hard to observe, so almost all craters were discovered after everything had already happened,” researcher Evgeny Chuvilin, who studies permafrost melt at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, explained.
“We have only piecemeal evidence from locals who say they heard a noise or saw smoke and flames. Plus, a crater turns into a lake in another one to two years, which is then hard to distinguish from common thermokarst lakes in the Arctic,” he added.
Besides the extreme amount of methane this area could one day surface, researchers are also concerned about what will happen if melting permafrost releases ancient bacteria we don’t know anything about.
Even if it doesn’t liberate a bacteria or trigger an oil spill, a massive funnel suddenly appearing in the soil is not a good sign. Scientists analyzing the peninsula’s emerged opening told local media this new hole is unique but then refused to provide any more information.