Russia’s Exploding Craters Finally Explained?

High up in Russia’s Gydan and Yamal peninsula, there are eight gigantic, 50m-deep craters. The mere existence of dramatic caverns punctuating an otherwise largely monotonous landscape would be fantastic enough. The best part? Scientists aren’t entirely sure how they got there. But a new preprint paper published on the EarthArXiv database purports to shed some light on the matter.

Researchers first discovered the craters over a decade ago and have been arguing about them ever since. How and when did the form, and why so suddenly? Well, maybe it wasn’t sudden, Katey Walter Anthony, a biogeochemist with expertise in permafrost told LiveScience back in 2017. “It doesn’t mean they are new.”

Russia is large and extremely remote in places. Is it possible that people just missed them?

One theory put forth recently involves natural gas buildups and ancient lakebeds. But my favorite? Meteorite strikes.

Unfortunately for fans of science fiction — who know that fun and excitement can come from mysterious meteor strikes in remote Russian locations — a group of scientists associated with the University of Oslo has proposed a more somber explanation. If your ExplorersWeb bingo card has “potentially catastrophic melting permafrost driven by climate change” on it, you win a prize.

Aerial view above the Messoyaha River in the tundra of The Gydan Peninsula.

Aerial view above the Messoyaha River in the tundra of The Gydan Peninsula. Photo: Shutterstock


‘Mechanical collapse’

The Oslo researchers point out that previous explanations for the craters don’t account for why they appear where they do (after all, Russia has lots of natural gas deposits). However, the permafrost on the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas varies in thickness and is thawing at the surface as a result of climate change.

At the same time, the scientists posit, “discrete conductive faults bring natural gas and heat to the base permafrost, deforming and melting the base, leading to the development of domal gas and heat traps.”

Between warming from above and cooking from below, the permafrost eventually melts completely in a relatively narrow spot, leading to “mechanical collapse.” When translated out of scientist-ese, this means “something big and loud and probably very impressive.”

And the bad news, the scientists write, is that the methane and other gasses released by the craters as they form will add to the greenhouse gas load the atmosphere is currently dealing with.

Keep in mind the paper isn’t peer-reviewed yet and things could change. Personally, I’m holding out hope for the meteorite strikes.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
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