Climate Bombs: Massive Methane Crater Opens Suddenly in Siberia After Permafrost Explodes

(EnviroNews World News) — Yamal Peninsula, Siberia — Since 2014, scientists have been faced with the mystery of spontaneously emerging craters in the Siberian permafrost. They’ve been blamed on everything from UFOs to missile tests to methane and cryovolcanism. But evidence suggests these massive craters form instantly in an explosive event after gasses build up and fester underground. The issue for those trying to study these climate change phenomena is that they occur deep in the hinterlands with no one around to witness them, and then fill with water quickly, making them virtually indistinguishable from the thermokarst lakes in the north. But now, researchers have the opportunity to study this new hole. It measures about 165 feet (50 m) deep, threw ice and rock hundreds of yards away from its center when it formed, and is “the most impressive” example of its kind.

A Vesti Yamal TV crew discovered the new crater on the Yamal Peninsula while they were on an unrelated assignment, according to The Siberian Times. It is the 17th such recorded phenomenon. Scientists call these formations “hydrolaccoliths” or “bulgunnyakhs.” The crater has sheer sides near the bottom; they radiate outward as they get closer to the surface.

“What we saw today is striking in its size and grandeur,” said Scientist Dr. Evgeny Chuvilin, a leading researcher at Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. “These are the colossal forces of nature that create such objects.”

It isn’t just the size and grandeur that has scientists abuzz. This particular crater, designated simply “17,” offers them the opportunity to study the phenomenon before it fills in with water in an effort to gain a better understanding of the mechanism behind these mysteries.

“This object is unique. It carries a lot of additional scientific information, which I am not yet ready to disclose,” said Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky of the Russian Oil and Gas Research Institute in Moscow. “This is a subject for scientific publications. We have to analyze all this, and build three-dimensional models.”

These craters were part of EnviroNews’ ongoing coverage of global warming when record temperatures over 100 degrees scorched Siberia earlier this year. As the permafrost melts at an accelerating pace due to anthropogenic global warming, methane builds up underground creating gas filled cavities that may be covered by a thick layer of ice. The cavity expands to create a mound known as a pingo. When the pressure becomes too great, scientists think the pingo explodes in dramatic fashion. Locals on the ground have reported hearing loud booms and seeing fireballs on the tundra during the events.

Bogoyavlensky claims that human activities related to oil and gas development may be a factor in the methane buildup as well. He is concerned about where other pingos have formed.

“In a number of areas, pingos, as we see both from satellite data and with our own eyes during helicopter inspections, literally prop up gas pipes,” he said. Such an event could lead to serious ecological disasters if they happen near gas lines or production plants. Residential areas could face dire consequences, as well.

Methane is a well-known greenhouse gas that is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. When these explosions occur, methane is spewed into the air in vast quantities, which in turn, contributes further to global warming, and creates yet another climate feedback loop, and a subsequent environment in which more pingo explosions can occur. The prospect of these events becoming more frequent and widespread worries some residents.

Methane Crater Filling With Water

On May 8, 2020, in Geosciences Journal, scientists published their model of formation for these pingos based on evidence they gathered in the Erkuta–Yakha River valley in the southern Yamal Peninsula in June 2017. That region harbors the southernmost crater.

“The presence of ethane and propane indicates that deep-seated gases generated during sediment maturation processes may have been involved into the gas-emission event,” they wrote in the study.

As more of these pingos are created through global warming, many scientists say the climate feedback loop could be devastating. However, the immediate danger is their ability to disrupt human structures and activities. If they form in the wrong area, they could even put human life at risk. Without action to learn more about pingo formation and how to stop them, researchers fear they could create an environmental catastrophe that could plague communities across the Arctic.

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