Siberia: door to the underworld. The permafrost ‘megaslump’ found in Northern Siberia sounds like something out of a horror movie. It doesn’t help that it’s continuously growing with climate change. As we explore this expanding crater, historical treasures are coming to light.
So, where in Siberia can you find this natural wonder? Does it pose any danger to humans? And what does it reveal about our planet’s distant past?
The Northern Siberia door to the underworld
Permafrost is found in regions such as Alaska, Greenland, Canada, and Siberia. Scientifically, ground remaining frozen for two or more consecutive years is classed as permafrost. It is typically composed of rock, soil, and sediments, and bound together with ice.
Found under a top surface layer of soil, permafrost thickness ranges from one metre up to almost 1500m into the Earth’s crust. For context, Mt Snowden is only 1085m high.
With climate change, patches of permafrost that may have been frozen for tens of thousands of years are now beginning to thaw. The effects of this can include houses slumping, roads rollercoastering, and entire communities requiring relocation due to the ground underfoot suddenly becoming unstable.
The world’s largest of these permafrost slumps, the ‘megaslump’, is found in north-eastern Russia, in the Republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutia. It’s name is the Batagaika crater or Siberia’s door to the underworld.
Does the Batagaika crater – aka the door to the underworld – pose a threat?
The label ‘Siberia door to the underworld’ can sound ominous. Already a kilometre in length, the depression drops to 100m in depth, and is continuously growing in size.
Landslides are a regular occurence at the unstable outer rim of the Batagaika crater, and the expansion has even been captured by NASA images.
Once the buried material is exposed to air, the repetition of this dethawing process is inevitable each time temperatures in the area exceed 0°C.
Permafrost stores carbon-based remains of long-dead plants and animals that froze before their corpses got a chance to decompose. Scientists estimate that soils in the permafrost region hold twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does – almost 1,600 billion tonnes. Again, for context, that’s approximately 35 million Titanic-fulls… which is still impossible to picture, but you get the point. It’s a lot.
And as permafrost in the Batagaika crater melts, it releases more of these greenhouse gases. This further contributes to global temperature increases, which in turn accelerates the thawing. This feature is known as a positive feedback loop, and spells trouble for the environment.
Providing you’re not reading this from anywhere near the crater, it doesn’t represent any immediate threat. However, its rapid expansion – averaging 10m per year – is a sign of wider human-induced climate crisis.
A door to the past: What does the Siberia underworld reveal?
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. One positive outcome of the Batagaika megaslump is the opportunity for scientific discovery.
Researchers at the University of Sussex found remains of ancient forests, with trees preserved by the ice. And Cambridge scientists analysed the newly exposed layers to potentially uncover 200,000 years of climate data.
Other offshoots included the discovery of a mammoth and a 4,400 year old horse.
If a few frozen tree and animal remains don’t make up for the blow of climate change (and they shouldn’t), then consider this: according to University of Sussex scientist, Julian Murton, the last time such slumps in the permafrost occurred was around 10,000 years ago. That’s when Earth was last leaving a glacial period, or ‘ice age’.
Researchers will use the new data to understand what happened to Siberia when a door to the underworld last emerged. Shedding light on what is to come in our current climate shift will be vital in helping us prepare for the changes ahead.