A bubble of methane swelling under the melting permafrost of Siberia burst and formed an impressive crater 50 meters deep. For the first time, a television group noticed a giant hole, and when scientists went to investigate, they found pieces of ice and stones scattered hundreds of meters from the epicenter.
The once-safe pocket of methane has long since vanished, leaving only a gigantic void in its place. It’s not clear when the hole formed or if climate change affected it, but in 2014 something similar was also seen on the Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Russia after a series of unusually warm summers. In fact, this is the 17th such «crater» discovered to date in the region, and the largest of its kind in recent years.
The giant holes are thought to have been created by the sudden collapse of hills or the swelling of the tundra, which themselves form when thawing permafrost causes methane to accumulate below the surface. Due to anthropogenic climate change, the Arctic is undergoing rapid destruction of permafrost, and the funnel phenomenon is affected by all these changes. However, there is still very little research investigating exactly how climate change is causing holes in the Earth as Arctic temperatures change.
This can be a big problem. Methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so the release of vast reserves of this gas could set off a vicious feedback loop that could make the current global climate crisis even worse. Analyzing historical images from the 1970s, a 2017 study found that the Siberian sinkholes have expanded in recent years. This suggests that thawing permafrost is partly responsible for these kinds of collapses and triggers the release of Arctic methane reserves. That same year, another study found 7,000 gas pockets under the Yamal Peninsula, right where the recent sinkhole was found.
Permafrost makes up roughly two-thirds of Russia in some of the world’s most remote and hard-to-reach areas, and there are simply not enough resources to explore these areas. Aside from the incredible amount of methane that this region of the world could one day erupt, scientists are also concerned that melting permafrost will cause ancient diseases we know nothing about.
In fact, it may already have happened. In 2016, an anthrax outbreak killed a 12-year-old boy and was linked to melting permafrost, releasing the old virus into the region’s water and soil. You can read about the largest holes in the earth in a separate collection.