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Northern Russia Marred with Dozens More Exploded Craters

The situation in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula — the “end of the world” — keeps getting weirder, and maybe closer to its name.

The Siberian Times reported this week that through satellite imagery and testimony from reindeer herders (the only humans in the region), scientists have identified at least seven more craters resembling the first discovered, with some larger craters turning into lakes ringed by dozens of smaller earthen cavities.

While not exactly good news, it’s not unexpected news either. Last year, when the giant holes were first identified, researchers speculated that many more holes likely marked the landscape. The reason why we had only identified three up until this point was the sheer vastness of Siberia and lack of people to notice.

“I am sure that there are more craters on Yamal,” says Vasily Bogoyavlensky, deputy director of the Moscow-based Oil and Gas Research Institute. “We just need to search for them.”

NewCraters_SATTop: Satellite image of a newly discovered crater a few kilometers north of the famous Yamal hole before gas emission. Bottom: A lake forms in and around the new crater, which is now surrounded by more than 20 smaller craters. Image: Bogoyavlensky

Currently, the prevailing idea is that these craters are great belches of gas exploding — maybe literally — out of the Siberian permafrost. A warming climate above and geologic fault lines below combine to violently and suddenly release gas from gas-infused liquids collecting under the snow and soil. It’s popping the cap off a methane champagne.

Whether these newly discovered craters happened recently or are old events new to satellite, the conclusion is the same: the Yamal craters are not isolated or rare. 45 years ago, significant degassing, or escaping gases once trapped under the surface, had been documented in the region. The process continues today, and likely contributes to the formation of these craters.

NewCraters_LAKEYamal lake with traces of gas emissions bubbling up from the soil. Credit: Vasily Bogoyavlensky

Past and current evidence of degassing in the region supports how scientists think the craters form, but it also means there is a problem. We don’t know when or where these holes will appear. We don’t know how violently they throw up the earth above them. And we don’t know what another crater near an offshore pipeline or drilling rig could do. Evidence from the craters’ surroundings and even testimony from nearby residents indicates that these can be and frequently are large explosions.

“It is important not to scare people, but…it is a very serious problem and we must research this,” says Bogoyavlensky.

But Russian scientists won’t just be twiddling their thumbs waiting for the next crater to pop. Another expedition to explore the new craters is in the works and Bogoyavlensky is proposing monitoring stations to listen for the peninsula’s next burp.

“No one knows what is happening in these craters at the moment,” Bogoyavlensky told the Siberian Times. “We want to put not less than four seismic stations in Yamal district, so they can fix small earthquakes that occur when the crater appears.”

In a warming world, those stations are likely to pick up something soon.

For more pictures and information, head over to The Siberian Times.

IMAGES: Marya Zulinova, Yamal regional government’s press service; Vasily Bogoyavlensky

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