Gateway to the underworld

In the heart of Siberia’s boreal forest, a massive crater aka Batagaika Crater which the locals call the ‘gateway to the underworld’ has been growing for the last 50 years.

It appears in the form of a huge gash on earth, a kilometre long and one hundred metres deep at one end.

Named after the Batagaika river, flowing nearby, a tributary of the river Yana, the Batagaika crater is what geologists call a thermokarst depression – caves which result when the permafrost melts, and although the Batagaika crater has no connection to the underworld, as the Yakutian people believe, it is still something to be feared of as these ‘slumps’ that are increasingly appearing across the northern hemisphere, could represent an ominous sign of things to come as the world continues to warm.

The crater started to form in the 1960s after a chunk of forest was cleared for industrial use, triggering a series of catastrophic geological and environmental events.

The vegetation provides insulation that keeps the ground cool - once that was removed, the summer heat was able to penetrate deeper into the ground, causing the permafrost to melt, and the area began to slump.

The crater has been growing ever since, becoming bigger and bigger with each passing year as the climate continues to change.

Dr. Julian Murton, a geology professor at the University of Sussex, believes that the Batagaika ‘megaslump’ – so called because of its gigantic size – will continue to grow until it runs out of ice or gets buried by slumped sediment.
“In some sense, Batagaika does provide a view to what has happened in the past and what is likely to happen in the future. As the climate warms – I think there’s no shadow of a doubt it will warm – we will get increasing thaw of the permafrost and development of these ‘thermokarst’ features. There will be more slumps and more gullying, more erosion of the land surface,” Dr Murton said.

The melting of the permafrost has side effects that are far reaching. The frozen soil contains vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. If the permafrost was to melt and the methane released into the atmosphere, it would cause an unprecedented rise in global temperature, tipping the planet into an extreme scenario. There is no immediate worry of the permafrost melting though, as parts of Siberia still experience temperatures more than fifty degrees below freezing.

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