'As if The Earth Was Breathing': Witness Describes Siberia Crater Before Explosion

A woman who visited a "heave mound" on Siberia's Arctic tundra before it exploded to form a huge crater said it was "as if the earth was breathing" and that the ground was shaking.

Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky, Doctor of Engineering Sciences from the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Siberian Times the local woman had become interested in the unusual ground formation that had developed in the region and had been visiting the site daily.

"But on the day of [the] explosion she felt some tremor, she described it as if the earth was breathing," he is quoted as saying. "She quickly left the place just in time before it exploded. If she had shown more curiosity, she would have been killed by this explosion and we would have the first victim."

The crater Bogoyavlensky was referring to formed in 2017 and is one of 17 documented craters to have formed on the Yamal peninsula over the past six years. He has been studying the newest crater, which was discovered by chance by a TV crew flying over on an unrelated assignment. Bogoyavlensky said the new crater contains a huge amount of scientific information and that the team is currently analyzing their findings.

It is thought craters are opening up on the Arctic tundra because of a build-up of methane deep beneath the surface. Methane gets trapped in pockets of unfrozen ground and starts to amass. When the pressure gets too much, it is released in a huge explosion. With global temperatures increasing as a result of climate change, the ground in the region is becoming increasingly unstable, as ground that was once permanently frozen frozen thaws. This poses a risk to the oil and gas infrastructure in the region, as well as communities living there.

siberia crater
A view of a crater on the Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia, taken in 2014. The latest crater is the seventeenth to be found since 2014. VASILY BOGOYAVLENSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Researchers are now trying to understand how many of these craters could be in the process of forming, with scientists looking for "heave mounds"—where the ground appears to be swelling—as evidence of an impending explosion.

Bogoyavlensky told Siberian Times there are more than 7,100 heave mounds on the Yamal and Gydan peninsula and that five to six percent of these are "really dangerous." Researchers are currently working to understand which heave mounds will explode and which will not. They are also considering ways of neutralizing those with the potential to explode. 'They can be cut open with gas being pumped out. It must be done very carefully, it is sappers' work, as these phenomena can be called 'gas mines',' Bogoyavlensky is quoted as saying.

Susan Natali, Arctic Program Director at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, previously told Newsweek the explosions would be extremely powerful. "Some have caused localized fires at the point of explosion and all emit massive quantities of soil and ice from the depth of the crater to the surrounding tundra," she said in an email. Natali and colleagues are now trying to identify potential craters from satellite data.

"What we do know is that these craters represent a new process in Earth System Science that was unknown and unexpected before they were first discovered," she said. "I think they are a good indicator of the rapid changes that are underway in the Arctic and provide a framework for understanding the potential for abrupt climate-mediated changes in the Arctic and globally."