Expedition investigates mysterious crater
Russian expedition examines a massive crater of unknown origin on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia.PT0M46S http://www.goodfood.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3c8mx 620 349 July 20, 2014
Researchers have long contended that the epicentre of global warming is also furthest from the reach of humanity. It’s in the barren landscapes of the frozen north, where red-cheeked children wear fur, the sun barely rises in the winter and temperatures can plunge to 50 degrees below zero. Such a place is the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, translated as “the ends of the earth”, a desolate spit of land where a group called the Nenets live.
By now, you’ve heard of the crater on the Yamal Peninsula. It’s the one that suddenly appeared, yawning nearly 60 metres in diameter, and made several rounds in the global viral media machine. The adjectives most often used to describe it: giant, mysterious, curious. Scientists were subsequently “baffled”. Locals were “mystified”. There were whispers that aliens were responsible. Nearby residents peddled theories of “bright flashes” and “celestial bodies”.
There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.
The original 80-metre wide crater in Siberia. Photo: AP
It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground.
According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane - up to 9.6 per cent - in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179 per cent methane.”
The scientist said the methane release may be related to Yamal’s unusually hot summers in 2012 and 2013, which were warmer by an average of 5 degrees Celsius.
Andrei Plekhanov, a researcher at the Scientific Research Center of the Arctic, stands at the entrance to the crater. Photo: AP
“As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground,” the report stated.
Plekhanov explained to Nature that the conclusion was preliminary. He would like to study how much methane is contained in the air trapped inside the crater’s walls. Such a task, however, could be difficult.
“Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” he told the science publication. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running; it’s rather spooky.”
Geochemist Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute explained: “Gas pressure increased until it was high enough to push away the overlaying layers in a powerful injection, forming the crater.”
He said that he had never seen anything like the crater.
Some scientists contend the thawing of such terrain, rife with centuries of carbon, would release incredible amounts of methane gas and affect global temperatures.
“Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane gas] on climate change is over 20 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period,” the Environmental Protection Agency reported
As the Associated Press put it in 2010, the melting of Siberia’s permafrost is “a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere”.
Researchers with Stockholm University’s Department of Applied Environmental Science recently witnessed methane releases in the East Siberian Arctic Ocean.
They found that “elevated methane levels [were] about 10 times higher than in background seawater,” wrote scientist Orjan Gustafsson on his blog last week.
He added: “This was somewhat of a surprise … This is information that is crucial if we are to be able to provide scientific estimations of how these methane releases may develop in the future.”
NASA also found the situation to be precarious.
“The fragile and rapidly changing Arctic region is home to large reservoirs of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” scientists wrote in 2012. It’s “vulnerable to being released into the atmosphere, where it can add to global warming”.
Now, as two additional craters have also recently been discovered in Siberia, researchers worry the craters may portend changes to Siberian life.
Two have appeared close to a large gas field.
“If [a release] happens at the Bovanenkovskoye gas field that is only 30 kilometres away, it could lead to an accident, and the same if it happens in a village,” Plekhanov told Nature.
The Washington Post