Across the Arctic, dramatically rising temperatures are causing permafrost to become decidedly less than permanent.
Permafrost is soil, mixed with sediment and rock, going down thousands of feet into the earth. It has formed, layer by layer, over the past half-million years. While a thin top layer can thaw during the warmer months and support plant growth, much of the permafrost has been frozen in place since the end of the Ice Age.
But in recent years, sections of permafrost around the world are thawing. As the planet heats up, the permafrost slowly dissolves, creating a range of geological behaviors, revealing a wealth of incredible information about the last 200,000 years of earth science and unlocking some dire forces that will shape our planet’s future.
Around the world, however, this permafrost is now rapidly melting. In Siberia’s northeast region, thawing permafrost is creating large craters, ravines and giant bubbles in the earth filled with ancient gases that poised to burst and to be released into the atmosphere. The largest crater, or megaslump as it is also known, measures more than half a mile long and 282 feet deep. Called the Batagaika crater, it has been growing since it formed in the 1960s after the forest was cleared in the Eastern Siberian taiga. Without the cooling tree cover, the land thawed and collapsed.
“In the 1960s, there was a road between the village of Batagai and some industrial facilities. The forest was cut down, and this led to the formation of the ravine. In recent years, against the backdrop of climatic changes, due to the warming, the ravine grew to the size of crater,” said Gregory Savvinov, director of the Research Institute of Applied Ecology of the North.
The crater is known by the local Yakutian people as the “doorway to the underworld”and inside, scientists have discovered evidence of past forests, fossils, mummified bodies of animals, and newly exposed geology that yields up to 200,000 years of historical climate records.
While this gives scientists a bounty of new information about the planet’s past, it also presents a dire scenario for the future. Permafrost stores massive amounts of carbon. As humans have released carbon into the atmosphere via combustion, the planet has warmed, leading to the thawing of the permafrost, which then releases even more carbon into the atmosphere, a cycle that is rapidly accelerating the rate of global warming.