This is due to Russia’s long-frozen permafrost thawing. The process has caused large changes to the area’s ecology, potentially threatening lives in the area. Dr Gideon Henderson, professor of Earth sciences at the University of Oxford explains that the last time the Earth saw a permafrost was 130,000 years ago.
What is definitely unprecedented is the rate of warming. The warming that happened 130,000 years ago happened over thousands of years … What we see happening now is warming over decades or a century.
Hence the fast rate of permafrost collapse.
Henderson explains the thawing of the permafrost will have an important effect on the changing climate. Usually, a permafrost will normalise the carbon in the atmosphere by storing the carbon from burning fossil fuel. In Siberia, it’s doing the opposite.
Henderson explains, that when the permafrost releases carbon, it accelerates the rate of warming. A loop is formed- where warming releases carbon producing higher temperatures.
Unfortunately, despite many theories being put forward, exactly how these massive craters formed is still unknown. Dr Vladimir Romanovsky, professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks explains that all hypotheses' rely on one key truth, that “temperature in the area is increasing.”
The craters may have devastating effects on the local community. The working theory is that trapped gas inside the craters explodes creating the sinkholes. In the process carbon dioxide, methane and greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.
Methane is a larger threat to the planet, warming the earth 34 more times as much as carbon dioxide. However whether or not these craters contribute to the greenhouses gases in the atmosphere is yet to be confirmed.
"There is no estimate for how much methane is released into the atmosphere because we don't know how" such craters are formed, Romanovsky said.
Immediately the thawing of the permafrost will threaten local infrastructure such as oil and gas fields, major industries in the area. If the theory about exploding gas causing the craters is true then such a catastrophic event has the potential to kill people.
Russia is funding further study of the craters and how they will impact the local environment.
Header: An aerial photograph of the Batagaika crater in Siberia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEXANDER GABYSHEV, RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF APPLIED ECOLOGY OF THE NORTH