Siberia's Gateway to the Underworld is Growing

Wildfires in Siberia could irreversibly affect permafrost in the region and lead to the growth of the Batagay megaslump—a huge scar in the landscape referred to by locals as the "Gateway to the Underworld."

Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years straight, and there is a lot of it around. Nearly a quarter of the land area of the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost below it, and Russia, home of Siberia, has a particularly large share.

Scientists believe that permafrost could play a key role in climate change, as it stores enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases that are then emitted if it melts. In the Arctic alone, permafrost is estimated to hold almost double the current amount of carbon found in the atmosphere, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Another issue caused by melting permafrost is that it can dramatically alter the landscape. When ice-rich permafrost melts it can lead to what's known as a thaw slump, in which the ground collapses leaving behind a large hole. Thaw slumps can grow rapidly and damage infrastructure as they do so.

gateway to the underworld
The Gateway to the Underworld as seen in June 2016. Wildfires in Siberia may be causing the crater's growth rate to speed up, scientists have said. NASA Earth Observatory

The thaw slump that is considered to be the world's biggest is the Batagay megaslump in Siberia.

The slump is of interest to researchers as it holds clues to prehistoric life on Earth, holding "up to 200,000 years of geological and biological history" in its frozen depths, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.

This year, deadly wildfires have swept through Siberia, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to order regional officials to do something about them and prevent a repeat of last year's fires which were Russia's biggest in modern history.

Experts have told Newsweek there is a risk that the fires and further warming of the region may lead to the "gateway to the underworld" getting even larger.

"In general, it can be assumed that a further warming of the region could lead to an accelerated growth of the slump," said Thomas Opel, a paleoclimate and permafrost researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

He added that it appears as though the slump's growth rate had already been increasing in recent decades with wildfires posing even greater risk.

"The area around Batagay has been subject to severe wildfires over the last few years," he said. "In any case fire will cause some damage to the vegetation cover that protects permafrost from thawing. As far as I remember some slumps have been initiated due to wildfire.

Siberian forest fire
A photo of a forest fire outside the village of Berdigestyakh, Siberia, in July, 2021. Siberia has faced more wildfires this year following another severe fire season in 2021. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

"From my point of view a growing slump would mainly 'consume' or 'eat' the existing landscape," Opel said.

Julian Murton, professor of permafrost science at the U.K.'s University of Sussex Department of Geography, echoed the point.

"The fires would need to be very close to the crater to directly affect its growth," he told Newsweek. "But the fires may trigger permafrost thaw and possibly in time new slumps at sites where they sweep over-sensitive, ice-rich permafrost.

"If fires kill or destroy the protective vegetation cover above the permafrost, this can lead to rapid warming of the soil and downward thaw of permafrost for years to several decades, depending on how long it takes for vegetation to re-establish."