(One of three massive holes found in Siberia. The prominent theory for the holes’ formation is a catastrophic destabilization of sub-surface methane under thawing tundra. Image source: The Moscow Times.)
Add salt, sand, and thawing methane pockets buried beneath scores of feet of warming permafrost together and what do you get? Massive explosions that rip 200-300 foot deep and 13-98 foot wide holes in the Siberian earth.
The name for the place where this strange event first happened, in Russian, is Yamal, which roughly translates to mean ‘the end of the Earth.’ Now, three holes of similar structure have appeared over a 700 mile wide expanse of Siberian tundra. The most likely culprit? Catastrophic destabilization of Arctic methane stores due to human-caused warming.
A Tale of Dragon’s Breath: How the Yamal Event Likely Unfolded
About 10,000 years ago, as the great glaciers of the last ice age gave up their waters in immense surges and outbursts into the world ocean, a broad section of Siberian tundra was temporarily submerged by rising seas. But with the loss of the great glaciers, pressures upon the crust in these zones subsided and, slowly, the newly flooded tundra rose, again liberating itself, over thousands of years of uplift, from the waters.
The land remained frozen throughout this time, covered in a layer of ice — solid permafrost hundreds of feet deep. But the oceanic flood left its mark. Salt water and sand found its way into cracks in the icy soil, depositing in pockets throughout the frozen region’s earth.
And there this chemical brew remained, waiting to be deep-frozen and sequestered as the glaciers of a new age of ice advanced over the Earth.
(Arctic warming trend from 1960 to 1990. Image source: NOAA.)
But this event, foretold and anticipated in the bones of Earth, did not come to pass. Instead, human beings began dumping billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. They dug up mountains of ancient carbon and burned it. And now those mountains of carbon lived in the air, thickening it, trapping heat.
For Siberia, this meant rising temperatures. At first, the increase was slow. Perhaps a tenth of a degree per decade. But by the time the 20th Century was closing and the 21st Century emerged, the pace of warming was greater than at any time even the Earth could remember — an increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius or more every ten years.
Now, the glaciers will probably not return for hundreds of thousands of years, if ever. And now, the brew that was waiting to be buried is instead thawing and mixing. A deep, heat-based cracking of the frozen soil that flash-bakes an alchemical mixture deposited over the ages. The result: dragon’s breath erupting from the very soil.
Explosive Eruptions From Smoking Earth
The earth was first observed to smoke. This continued for some time and then a bright flash followed by a loud bang exploded above the tundra. After the mists and smoke cleared, a large hole surrounded by mounds of ejected soil was visible. The hole tunneled like a cone more than 200 feet down. Its walls were frozen permafrost.
(Broad expanse of Siberia containing three massive holes, indications of explosive eruptions in the permafrost set off by thawing methane mixed with salt, water and sand. The holes are all in the range of 200-300 feet deep. Deep enough to contact subsoil methane pockets or, in some cases, frozen clathrate. Image source: The Daily Mail.)
A single event of this kind might be easy to overlook as an aberration. A freak case that might well be attributed to unique conditions. But over the past two weeks not one, not two, but three large holes, all retaining the same features, have appeared within the same region of Yamal, Russia.
A single event may well be easily marked off as a strange occurrence, but three look more like the start of a trend.
Weather Underground notes:
The holes may foreshadow bigger problems for our planet in the near future, scientists worry. Permafrost around the Arctic contains methane and carbon dioxide, and both could be dangerous to our environment if released, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As long as the permafrost remains frozen, the report adds, this isn’t a concern, but climate models have painted a grim future for rising temperatures in the Arctic.
And with temperatures in the Arctic, and especially over Siberia, rising so fast, the permafrost is not remaining frozen. It is instead thawing. And together with this thaw comes a growing release of carbon stored there over the 2-3 million year period since the ice ages began their long reign. It is a release we can expect to continue together with human-caused warming. One that is critical to abate as much as possible, if we are to have much hope for a climate favorable for human beings and the continuing diversity of life on this world. How rapidly and violently the Arctic responds to our insults depends on how hard we push it. And right now, through an amazing human carbon emission, we are now pushing the Arctic very hard.
Jason Box, a prominent Arctic researcher and head of the Dark Snow Project, noted Sunday in his blog, Meltfactor:
What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions. This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies. This is an all hands on deck moment. We’re in the age of consequences.
If the warming trends continue and fossil fuel burning does not abate, these holes may be only minor explosive outbursts compared to what may follow. In any case, given current trends, it appears entirely possible that more and more of these strange holes will be appearing throughout the Arctic. An ugly sign of the danger inherent to our time.