As Siberia's Coldest Regions Burn, the 'Gateway to the Underworld' Crater Grows

Towns and villages in one of the coldest parts of the Siberian Arctic are at risk of wildfires tearing across the land as the region experiences an unprecedented heatwave over the last month.

Nikita Zimov, director of Pleistocene Park, an experiment to restore the landscape to prehistoric times to reduce the amount of carbon being released, told the Siberian Times wildfires have not reached them for many years. "Last time it was this bad forty years ago in the 80s," he said. In the north of Yakutia, fires have surrounded the village of Svatay. To the west, in the village of Batagay, reports said it was raining ash, the newspaper said.

According to Greenpeace Russia, satellite data shows that since the start of 2020, the total area burned across the country has reached 19 million hectares. This is a larger area than Greece. Most of the fires have been in Far Eastern Russia and Eastern Siberia, it said.

"Russia's sprawling Siberia region became a climate hotspot, heating up much faster than the rest of the planet," Grigory Kuksin, Greenpeace Russia Wildfire Unit Head, said in a statement. "This summer has already brought extreme heat waves, oil spills caused by thawing permafrost, and raging forest fires—what next before we finally act on climate?"

The extreme heat recorded in the area has been ongoing since June. On July 19, meteorologist Scott Duncan shared a visual on Twitter showing heat in the region, with temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius expected at the edge of the Arctic ocean.

Savage heat for several days incoming for #Siberia. Again.

Next week will see temperatures above + 30 °C on the fringe of the Arctic ocean.

The intense heat will help warm the sea surface. This would normally be impossible but the ice that usually shields the sea has melted.

— Scott Duncan (@ScottDuncanWX) July 19, 2020

According to a study released by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) on July 15, Siberia's heatwave was "almost impossible" without climate change. It said that the prolonged period of heat was at least 600 times more likely as a result of anthropogenic warming. The heatwave, authors said, had led to dry conditions that exacerbated wildfires and thawed the permafrost, "which led to high damages, including environmental pollution."

A report in Science magazine highlighted another change currently taking place in the Siberian Arctic. The Batagay crater in eastern Siberia, called the "gateway to the underworld" by locals, is now growing at a faster rate than it used to. This is largely down to the thawing of permafrost—ground that is permanently frozen, sometimes for tens of thousands of years.

Frank Guenther, from the Institute of Geosciences at the University of Potsdam, Germany, told the magazine that for decades, the crater was expanding at a rate of about 32 feet per year. Since 2016, however, the rate of expansion has sped up to between 39 and 45 feet per year.

The thawing permafrost in the region is starting to become a big problem. For years, huge craters have been appearing across the Arctic tundra. It is thought that as permafrost thaws, methane is released from the breakdown of organic material previously trapped in the frozen ground. This methane is believed to form pockets and when too much pressure builds, it explodes, leaving behind a hole in the landscape. In 2016, a video was released showing the ground wobbling as a result of a suspected methane bubble beneath.

More recently, a fuel spill from a power planet in the Krasnoyarsk Region, Siberia, was attributed to thawing permafrost. It is thought the ground beneath the Nornickel thermoelectric plant became unstable, causing the accident.

The WWA report said that by 2050, temperatures in Siberia may increase by 2.5 degrees Celisus compared with 1990. In the most extreme scenario, this figure could reach 7 degrees Celsius.

A 2018 study also found the thawing permafrost will start toppling buildings across the Northern Hemisphere by 2050. "We show that nearly four million people and 70 percent of current infrastructure in the permafrost domain are in areas with high potential for thaw of near-surface permafrost," the team wrote in the journal Nature.

"Alarmingly, these figures are not reduced substantially even if the climate change targets of the Paris Agreement are reached."

 Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia.
A crater that appeared on the Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia, in 2014. It is thought the crater formed as a result of thawing permafrost, leading to the build up of methane underground. iStock