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Siberian permafrost explosions form a global warming feedback loop

The end of the land

A nomadic reindeer herder in the remote Russian arctic was going about his day in the Yamal peninsula, a name that means “the end of the land”. Suddenly, the ground erupted with a loud explosion, sending flames shooting towards the sky. The reindeer and the dogs bolted in fear, running away from the site of the explosion. The confused herder was left alone in the tundra, holding a reindeer calf in his hands.

In the Yamal region, the locals have been reporting the mysterious phenomena since 2013. There are tremors in the ground, loud noises heard upto hundred kilometers away, entire hills vanish, craters appear suddenly in the ground, there is a glow in the sky, columns of fire, and clouds of billowing black smoke. In the aftermath of these mysterious explosions, mounds of soil, sand and ice is scattered for up to a one kilometer radius around the crater. At times, the craters keep growing in size after the initial formation. At other times, the terrain is tortured with irregular features, including rapidly expanding ravines. The craters have names such as “big bang”, or “pillar of fire”. The Siberian Times has been consistently reporting on the phenomenon.

Image: Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug official website.

Initial theories on what was causing the explosions included meteor impact events and missile strikes. Some suspected that pranksters were behind the craters. For conspiracy theorists, the explanations ranged from aliens to the secretive underground facilities collapsing. The most famous crater is a tourist destination, and is known as the Yamal crater. As the site of the explosion was close to a river, the river flowed into it, forming a natural funnel.

The craters are primarily appearing in the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas, both in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, well within the arctic circle. The twin peninsulas jut out into the Kara sea. The region is pockmarked with crater shaped lakes, and the satellite imagery from the area is a nightmare for those suffering from trypophobia. The Yamal peninsula has one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world. Although primarily undeveloped at the moment, Russia’s largest energy project is being planned in the area. The permafrost explosions could have serious repercussions on the planned energy projects.

Beneath the ground in the tundra, is a trapped layer of permafrost. The permafrost is a frozen layer of ice, sand and soil. Trapped within the permafrost is the methane produced by bacteria, as well as significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Most of the permafrost deposits are believed to have formed during the previous ice age, which is suspected to have ended about eleven thousand years ago. The problem is that the permafrost is no longer frozen, as the temperatures are dropping below zero. The explanation most favored by researchers, is global warming, brought about by climate change as a consequence of increased human industrial activity. Another explanation is that heat is seeping up through the cracks in the rocks, because of the tectonic activity in the region. A few days of sudden increase in heat can also cause disruptions in the permafrost layer. Scientists now mainly attribute the craters to the collapse of the permafrost due to increasing temperatures.

An environmental time bomb

Once the permafrost melts, the trapped methane is released below the ground. This causes the ground to swell up, creating mounds known pingos, or hydrolaccolith. The local name for a pingo is “bulgunnyakh”. The mounds wobble, similar to jelly. With a build up of sufficient pressure, the pingos can explode, leaving a crater behind, and releasing the methane into the atmosphere. This also explains local reports of entire hills disappearing. While most of the craters are believed to have been formed due to pingo explosions, there are collapsed craters that have appeared where pingos were not present.  

To the north of the Yamal peninsula, is a tiny island called Bely. The island has a number of pingos. Portions of the island appear to be bubbling or trembling. In some areas, the ground wobbles, as if it were a giant trampoline. Gases also leak out into the atmosphere from beneath the ground. In expeditions to Bely island, researchers measured exactly how toxic the gases released by the melting permafrost were. Initial measurements in 2016 indicated that the “air” leaking out had 20 times as much carbon dioxide and about 200 times as much methane as the regular air in the atmosphere. Follow up measurements in 2017 revealed something even more startling. The level of carbon dioxide was 25 times more in comparison to normal air, but the level of methane was in fact closer to 1000 times more.

A Pingo. Image: Shawn.

Both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases that trap heat and contribute to global warming. The toxic atmosphere on Venus is because of a buildup of greenhouse gases, and the discovery led to planetary scientists investigating how human activity is affecting the atmosphere on earth. While there is a lot of focus on reducing the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, there is less attention on methane because of its low percentage in emissions. However, methane is actually between 30 to 80 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide emissions would form a positive feedback loop for global warming. More greenhouse gases means more heat in the atmosphere, and more heat means more greenhouse gases get emitted. The mounds exist in the shallow waters near the Siberian shelf as well. A vessel almost capsized in 1995, because of a bubble of methane that it accidentally drilled into. Researchers estimate that there are over 7,000 gas bubbles in Siberia that are expected to explode. From the Arctic seabed, the methane is leaking out in bubbles from areas known as taliks, which are releasing as much methane into the atmosphere as the land.

In 2013, an international team of researchers went into the caves along the permafrost frontier to better understand how changing climate conditions affects the permafrost. These caves are located in the layer of the ground, where the soil and ice is permanently frozen. The stalactites and stalagmites in these caves provide a record of over 500,000 years of weather conditions. The formations only grow when there is flowing water, which means when the temperature is warmer. The largest periods of growth were observed over 400,000 years ago, when the atmosphere was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the current temperature. This means that an increase of 1.5 degrees of global temperature, is the tipping point, at which large amounts of permafrost will begin to melt. Permafrost covers about 24 percent of the land area in the northern hemisphere, and can release potentially release gigatonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

And it is not just greenhouse gases, there are other ancient terrors locked within the permafrost as well. In 2016, there was a sudden heat wave where temperatures soared to 35 degrees Celsius in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. One of the things exposed by the melting permafrost, was a reindeer carcass infected with anthrax. First, the local reindeer were infected, with over 2,300 dying because of the disease. The sickness jumped to humans from the reindeer, which resulted in several confirmed infections, and the death of a twelve year old boy. It was the first breakout of anthrax in the region since 1941.

Image: Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug official website.

Industrialisation to the rescue

There are massive energy projects planned in the Yamal region, considering the area has one of the biggest gas deposits in the world. Professor Anthony Hopkins from the Australian National University has suggested a brilliant solution. Turns out, that the industry has the technologies necessary to harvest the gases trapped within the permafrost. The same techniques used to harvest the gas can also be used to harvest the methane trapped within the ground. This methane could be burnt up to form carbon dioxide, which is actually more preferable as an emission. However, successfully getting the gas industry to do this would require some kind of subsidies from the government, or external funding.

Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.