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Looking into Earth's past — The Batagaika crater in Siberia

By Karen Graham     Mar 1, 2017 in Science
A crater in Siberia that began forming in 1960 has now grown to a monstrous size and shows no signs of stopping. Locals call it the "Gateway to the Underworld," but it is actually a very real example of our changing climate.
The Batagaika crater is a thermokarst depression in the East Siberian taiga, in the Sakha Republic in Russia. The crater began to form after a forest was cleared in preparation for a road that was to be built in the region. The area is one of the coldest regions in the world and is layered in permafrost.
The Batagaika crater resulted from the removal of the trees that protected the ground from the sun's rays. The barren ground began warming, which in turn led to the permafrost layers thawing. The crater that has now formed was named after the Batagaika River, a nearby tributary of the Yana River.
The Batagaika Crater is located in northeastern Siberia.
The Batagaika Crater is located in northeastern Siberia.
Google Satellite Imagery
What is a thermokarst depression?
As the permafrost thawed, "karsting" was triggered, eventually forming the thermokarst depression or crater. Thermokarst is a term used to describe the land surface that results from permafrost melting. This creates thaw slumps but in the case of the Batagaika crater, we have a "megaslump."
The land has many very irregular surfaces of marshy hollows and small hummocks formed as the ice-rich permafrost thaws. This occurs in Arctic areas, and on a much smaller scale in mountainous areas such as the Himalayas and the Swiss Alps. The pitting seen in the land surfaces resembles those found in karst areas where limestone is found, so that is why "karst" is added to the name, even though there may not be any limestone present.
Example of a karstic hole with fresh water - even in summer.
Example of a karstic hole with fresh water - even in summer.
Another interesting bit of information has to do with the "loud thumping" noises locals are said to hear coming from the crater, and they are afraid to go near it.
Many of the Yakutian people believe in the upper, middle and underworlds, and the noises they hear are thought to come from the underworld. However, scientists explain that the noises are nothing more than the collapse of small domes formed on the surface of the depression due to frost heaving. The domes form in the winter but then collapse with the arrival of the next summer thaw.
The Batagaika crater is growing as the climate warms
Today, the Batagaika depression has grown to about 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) long and 282 feet (86 meters) deep. It is growing at a rate of 33 feet (10 meters) annually. however, in warmer years its growth has accelerated by as much as 98 feet (30 meters) a year.
Frank Günther of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, along with his colleagues, has been monitoring the crater for the past 10 years. He recently said that with the side wall of the crater growing at a faster rate, it will soon reach a neighboring valley this summer, very likely creating a trigger for even more growth.
The BBC quotes Gunther: "On average over many years, we have seen that there's not so much acceleration or deceleration of these rates, it's continuously growing. And continuous growth means that the crater gets deeper and deeper every year."
Further Reading: Climate-driven Arctic permafrost collapse causing dramatic change
Along with the accelerated growth of the crater is another concern - Ice deposits from the last Ice Age are now being exposed. This is worrisome because this ice contains a lot of organic matter that in turn contain a lot of carbon. "Global estimations of carbon stored in permafrost is [the] same amount as what's in the atmosphere," says Günther.
This action creates a never-ending cycle. As more carbon is exposed, microbes devour it, producing methane and carbon dioxide gasses as waste products. These greenhouse gasses are then released into the atmosphere. Gunther says, "Warming accelerates warming, and these features may develop in other places. It's not only a threat to infrastructure. Nobody can stop this development. There's no engineering solution to stop these craters developing."
Screen grab from above video showing researchers looking at the striations of climate data in the cr...
Screen grab from above video showing researchers looking at the striations of climate data in the crater.
Haroon Aaron/Daily
The Batagaika Crater is an amazing history book
Because the crater has exposed the previously frozen subsurface of the land, a remarkable stratigraphic sequence of permafrost deposits 200,000 years old can now be seen by scientists. Imagine, a pictorial history of the Earth's climate all laid out in the sediment, and in near-perfect condition.
Scientists have found the remains of long-buried forests, the remains of mammoths, a musk ox, pollen grains, and even a 4,400-year-old horse. Actually, scientists have found two separate ice events separated by a fine layer of sand and the remains of two different forests, each associated with a reddened weathering horizon.
All the recent findings discussed here have been published in the journal Quaternary Research on February 16, 2017. The research is entitled "Preliminary paleoenvironmental analysis of permafrost deposits at Batagaika megaslump, Yana Uplands, northeast Siberia."
More about Batagaika crater, Siberia, Permafrost, thaw slumps, climatic history book
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