Is This the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun? Second Mysterious Hole Found in Yamal Russia

They call it ‘the end of the Earth.’

Yamal, Russia — a stretch of tundra flats and peat bogs stretching as far as the eye can see before terminating into the chill waters of the Kara. A rather stark and desolate place, one that was mostly unknown until a massive and strange hole appeared in the earth there last week. Since that time, the strange hole has been the butt of every kind of wild speculation and controversy.

Yamal Siberia

(MODIS satellite shot of Yamal Siberia — the peninsula located in center frame and recent site of mysterious holes that may have been caused by the catastrophic destabilization of thawing methane gas embedded in the permafrost. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The hole itself was an alien feature. “We haven’t seen anything like this before,” would be an entirely accurate statement. All about the hole was a large pile of debris — overturned earth, huge chunks of soil piled up in a signature very familiar to the ejecta of a meteor impact crater.

Approaching the hole edge, we came to a gradual slope that proceeded downward for about 40 feet at about a 35 degree incline. Along the surface of this incline, both the unfrozen soil cap and the frozen permafrost were visible.

But it wasn’t until we hit the bottom edge of this incline that we encountered the strangest feature of all — a sheer cliff, rounded in a shape like the smooth bore of a gun, and plunging straight down through icy permafrost for about another hundred and twenty feet before revealing a basement cavern slowly filling with melt.

It’s a combination of features that appears to be one half impact crater and one half sink hole.

Russia Siberia Crater

(The freakish combination of features including apparent ejecta piled around a crater with a sheer tunnel coring 220 feet down. Image source: The Siberian Times)

One theory on the feature is that it might be a pingo — a melting of a permafrost water pocket left over by an ancient lake that was long ago buried by sediment. But a pingo would typically form in a manner similar to a sinkhole and would probably not have apparent ejected material piled around its mouth.

Another theory, advanced by Russian Arctic scientists, is that a pocket of gas beneath the permafrost spontaneously destabilized — either through chemical or physical processes. The destabilized gas then is thought to have violently blown away the surface layer “like the popping of a cork in a champagne bottle.”

The Compost Bomb

Key to the second theory is that thawing permafrost contains vast stores of volatile methane at various depths. The methane is either trapped in pockets encased in ice and soil or locked in a water lattice structure forming what is called methane hydrate. Both forms are unstable, though they are often buried beneath tens to hundreds of meters of permafrost. Researchers have remained unsure how rapidly this methane would release and its rate of release is key to how fast the world will warm this century in response to human-caused greenhouse gas heat forcing.

Over 1,400 gigatons of carbon are sequestered in the permafrost. Much of this immense store is biological material buried over the 2 million year span of below-freezing conditions dominating much of the Arctic region of our planet. During this time, gradual glacial advance and retreat froze and refroze the earth in layers entombing a vast load of the stuff. Now, human warming is beginning to unlock it.

Permafrost spans much of the Arctic, under-girding Siberia, far Northern Europe, the northern tiers of Canada, and most of Alaska. It also rests beneath a flooded zone called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Initial reports and research from these regions indicate an ongoing release of millions of tons of methane and CO2 annually. Bubbling seabed stores from the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf have caused some to speculate that releases of 1 billion tons to 50 billion tons of methane could be possible during the coming years and decades.

Tundra map NASA

(Is a sleeping dragon awakening in the Arctic? Map of wide expanse of permafrost containing 1,400 gigatons of carbon. Image provided by NASA’s CARVE methane research experiment which is now under the aegis of ABOVE.

Peter Wadhams, in an article for Nature last year, attempted to bracket the potential impacts of such large releases. In the article, Wadhams estimated that a 50 gigaton emission from the Arctic methane store over the next two decades would increase global temperatures by about 0.6 C above the current rate of warming and force temperatures through the 2 C barrier by 2035 (ironically, Michael Mann comes to the same conclusion without implicit inclusion of a powerful methane release). The costs in human lives and economic damage from such a release would be immense and it would risk further outbursts from the large and vulnerable carbon store.

And though the potential for such very large releases remain highly controversial among scientists, the massive pile of thawing permafrost carbon is an ominously large and unstable store facing off against an initial human warming that is more than six times faster than at any time during the geological past.

In the shadow of this emerging and hard to gauge threat, a term emerged to encapsulate the vast warming potential stored in permafrost, should it release and hit the atmosphere. The term — compost bomb — alludes to the risk involved in pushing the two-million-year-old Northern Hemisphere permafrost stores into rapid thaw.

Mystery Hole — A Smoking Gun?

With the spontaneous emergence of a strange hole that Russian scientists are linking to destabilized gas pockets within the permafrost due to thaw, it became possible that, yet one more, explosive mechanism for release had presented itself. And now, today, a second and similar hole has been discovered:

According to the Moscow Times:

“Global warming, causing an alarming melt in the ice under the soil, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne cork,” the news report said, citing an expert at the Subarctic Scientific Research Center.

The first hole is estimated to be about 50 meters wide and 70 meters deep, with water from melting permafrost cascading down its sides into the icy deposit below.

The second hole is “exactly” like the first one, but “much smaller,” local lawmaker Mikhail Lapsui told the Interfax-Ural news agency. “Inside the crater itself, snow can be seen. (emphasis added)”

And so, in the course of just one week, we have two very strange holes that Russian scientists are linking to destabilizing gas pockets beneath the thawing tundra. Smoking barrel of the compost bomb? Or as a commenter here called Colorado Bob puts it:

We’re going to see the tundra breaking out in these things like zits on a teenager.

Let’s hope these are mere sink-holes from collapsing ice pockets in the permafrost. Let’s hope there’s another explanation for what appears to be ejecta piled around these holes. Let’s hope that these ‘zits’ showing up in the Yamal permafrost remain local to the area. And let’s hope we don’t start seeing similar explosive outbursts from tundra in other regions, or worse, along the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Lastly, let’s hope that any outbursts remain small in size and do not lift very large sections of land or submerged sea bed.

In any case, these initial reports are not promising and it appears we may both have a compost bomb smoking gun and a potential mechanism for rapid destabilization and explosive release of gas pockets deeply embedded in the frozen tundra all wrapped into one. Not very reassuring to say the least.


Mystery Behind Giant Hole Clearer as Second Hole Discovered

Now There Are Two Weird Holes in Siberia


The Siberian Times



Impacts of Large Releases from Monstrous Arctic Methane Stores

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick

Hat tip to todaysguestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob




Leave a comment


  1. thetinfoilhatsociety

     /  July 24, 2014

    I felt a little weird clicking the ‘like’ button for this story but I have to say it was very interesting and well written. Even if the content wasn’t likeable 🙂

  2. Mark from New England

     /  July 24, 2014

    Good article Robert. I hope we find out if there’s a third one, a fourth one, etc.

    I read the linked Moscow Times article, and am dismayed at all the denialist drivel in the comments section. Makes me want to introduce some of these folks to a real hockey stick 😉

    • The climate change deniers have been working overtime on the Yamal hole issue. Methane or no, it’s a clear sign of Arctic warming and anything related to that is bound to get their panties in a bunch.

  3. Colorado Bob

     /  July 24, 2014

    One theory on the feature is that it might be a pingo — a melting of a permafrost water pocket left over by an ancient lake that was long ago buried by sediment. But a pingo would typically form in a manner similar to a sinkhole and would probably not have apparent ejected material piled around its mouth.

    I’ve done some reading on pingos , and as we know them these 2 holes look nothing like the ones we’ve seen in the recent past.

    First , the permafrost begins to melt, in a low area, deep underground a large wedge of really frozen ice is relieved of it’s frozen over burden. and rises in the center of the pingo . This whole process makes what amounts to a Mexican Hat on the tundra, with a ring of melt water round the crown of the hat.

    These new holes are not pingos as we know them.

  4. Colorado Bob

     /  July 24, 2014

    Trapped in double link , please free the post above.

  5. The second hypothesis is pretty convincing. I’m also worried about the stability of seabed methane hydrate deposits outside the Arctic. As the oceans continue to warm, when will they release?

    • There’s concern that this will happen and that it’s beginning to happen. There’s a controversy over time-scales, though.

    • Colorado Bob

       /  July 24, 2014

      The land is the first place we see this directly . these blow outs , but the ocean is already underway , Igor Semiletov told us it was coming.

    • If you look at the graph of the clathrate stability zone, where they can be stabilised by either temperature or pressure – I think you’ll find that the Arctic (the East Siberian Shelf in particular) is somewhat of a special case.

      Most clathrates are far deeper and would require much more dramatic warming in much larger volumes of water to destabilise – as far as I’ve ever got the impression at least. The ESS is special – shallow – prone to warming from run off and lost ice cover – and quite bad enough even without adding land based permafrost (actually far larger potentially).

      • Submerged permafrost clathrate is more vulnerable because the clathrate stability zone is shallower than the ocean clathrate stability zone. It’s like you dropped a huge block of the stuff in high heat transfer by volume water at shallower than typical depth. The land permafrost insulates better to air and water temps, on aggregate, are warmer at the Arctic Ocean bottom. All this is cause for some concern.

        • Or to be precise the clathrates in ESS are temperature stabilised rather than pressure – and the temperature is changing. Ironically deeper clathrates would become more stable as sea levels rise and more pressure applies – at least until the extra heat starts to work its way around down there.

          Land permafrost might insulate to a point – but I question if so much once it’s brown slush (quite liquid…) where once it was fluffy snow on top of solid soil?

          That’s setting aside the question of if decay resuming can generate enough heat to be significant in its own right (I’m skeptical but don’t know just how rich in organic matter the permafrost is).

          I think cause for concern is a trifle understated personally – if people haven’t worked out that the earth system is going to respond “far worse and sooner than expected” by now, they’re not going to…

        • The oceans seem to accumulate heat very rapidly, the deep ocean especially, I’d call it a race between SLR and ocean warming. The fresh water wedge says warming probably hits at about the time SLR ramps up.

          Serious cause for concern… We seem to, potentially, have more evidence for a catastrophic release mechanism in tundra. In any case, what’s the potential methane feedback this century? I still don’t think we know enough. But I’d put it at between 0.1 and 3.0 C. Still very high error bars.

        • But the specific heat capacity of water and the mass of said oceans vs the atmosphere mean it takes a lot more heat there to raise temperature (as matters for clathrates) than it does in the atmosphere (or shallower water or land – where convection currents cannot circulate energy around incidentally).

          I don’t think we can really even guess at century methane feedback – we just don’t know enough – and most experts are still choosing to dispute that rapid release modes are even possible… which means we’re really not in a position as a species to make much progress with the question.

          Catastrophic outcomes are unfortunately not the preserve of any single element in the system now, there are multiple routes to overall catastrophe and few if any routes to anything else.

        • High specific heat means that the oceans inevitably suck up most of the warming. The mechanical dynamic of freshening and ocean current change drives a lot of that heat toward the ocean floor. Some will try to say that this dynamic means the Earth system has lower than expected sensitivity (ocean takes up more heat) but they miss the hydrates that are sitting directly in the path of the train.

          We are loading up the system to deliver between mild to extreme catastrophe.

  6. Colorado Bob

     /  July 24, 2014

    These blow outs in Siberia ain’t part of our recent past, and they should scare the pants off anyone with a degree in geology .

    But first and foremost these are not pingos. Pingos don’t make giant holes in the Earth , they make large wedges of ice moving to the surface, in short they make little mountains , not smooth shot like holes , deep in the Earth.
    With the ejecta around the hole . There was no fire , just a really large gas blow-out. With a really large amount of force. If it’s comes during an electrical storm , all bets are off . Or if it comes when raindeer herder is smoking. his ass is off to Allah.

    I have theory about this type of gas release in the Arctic Ocean , a ship will sail into one of these releases , and explode , because there was very little wind to move the gas .

    All these oil shippers need to think about this , the Arctic Ocean may eat you as you try to sail it. It’s not just going melt and be calm , it’s going to “fizz” like a Seven-Up for hundreds of years.

    I see oil tankers sailing into gas pockets , and exploding. , never be to seen again.

    • Mark from New England

       /  July 24, 2014

      Perhaps that’ll keep Shell and Exxon-Mobil out of there!

      • Well, one could hope.

      • Colorado Bob

         /  July 24, 2014

        Not until one explodes . And it will because so much gas is coming off the sea floor nothing is safe in the North. Barrow , Alaska will be abandoned .

        The North will be the most violent place we we have ever seen. As we see today. It’s burning into the permafrost as I type.

        Buckle your chin straps kids .

      • @ Colorado Bob —

        And the climate panglossians (who realize climate change is a problem and even a looming catastrophe but think we can “adapt”) have this delusion that if worse comes to worst we can always move into the far North. Ditto the FF extractors who optimistically think they can exploit those very same clathrates without any negative consequence, for which they have no *evidence*.

    • An explosion is probably fairly unlikely, the gas will rapidly diffuse into the atmosphere in the bigger picture – which is actually far worse globally.

      The bulk of the explosions and violence, I suggest will be those wrought by man upon man in warfare chasing rapidly dwindling resources (of all types) as the system implodes upon itself.

      Let’s hope collapse is fast and sharp, to give whoever is left afterwards the best chance of retaining knowledge to proceed afterwards.

  7. Colorado Bob

     /  July 24, 2014

    We world we knew , its not the world we will live in .
    This extinction event is well under way.

    Plants and animals are going over cliff

    All so we can buy and sell cars. That is the only thing that natters.

    • Not just for cars, the whole edifice of modern “civilisation” has been constructed in such a way that my parents and grandparents generations stole the indefinite future to briefly grant themselves a nice fantasy world. My generation by and large is continuing their work, even if we are rather late to the party and it’s mostly just scraps left now.

      That’s the problem too of course – we cannot just get rid of one thing (cars) and expect anything to be fixed. The whole system is the problem and we’re committed to failure of that system regardless of the course of action now. Decades of ignored warnings…

  8. On the upside, if it is clathrate destabilisation, I have lot of people I can think of where one gets to say “I told you so” – even if those discussions were in terms of submarine clathrates (as opposed to permafrost). The basic mechanism is still pretty similar, one would imagine (and the basic point stands – that truly catastrophic rates and severity of change are likely possible).

    It seems to me the probability of truly dramatic rates of change is realistically now rather high – in fact I’m inclined to view it as the most likely outcome (while not saying I subscribe to an end Permian level of severity just yet, at least not this century).

    Give it a decade or two, let’s see what sort of a planet we’re living on, eh? There are simply too many too powerful mechanisms for catastrophic change already committed to not expect at least some of them to kick in (and the background context remains a planet with a critically unsustainable resource/population bubble waiting to burst).

    And still nobody is acting…

    Inaction is the choice to damns both oneself and children/grandchildren. It is that simple. I’d wager inaction is the choice being made by virtually everyone reading here.

    • hm, not fair…this reader doesn’t drive a car, use AC, recycles religiously, is well versed in herbalism and healing arts as well as living off the land, never buy new, only take what i need, etc. and has done all her life. my current contributions may seem paltry, i run a fairly large group on FB called ‘weird weather’ where i post and share current events and information pertaining to climate and earth changes. members tell me they have learned a lot from the group, and like i said, it’s not much but at least it’s getting some education to people.

  9. David Nicholson

     /  July 25, 2014

    I am one of your readers who believes that we must get off of fossil fuels and start to remove the excess CO2 that is in the air and the oceans. Please consider and discuss those ideas on this excellent blog. Thanks for listening. David Nicholson, retired mechanical engineer

  10. nicholbrummer

     /  July 25, 2014

    Certainly mysterious, these holes. What would be the mechanism of such a champagne-cork explosion? Would an initial release of gas reduce pressure and then destabilise the clathrate, so it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism, which then leads to the explosion? Would the expanding gas escaping the hole not also take away a lot of heat, cooling the hole and maybe even freeze it up again along the edges, before it can blow? Maybe there are many more smaller events where some gas is blown off but the hole is closed up again?

    • Pressure buildup and weakening of the ice substrate until the overburden cap catastrophically fails and the gas pressure blows the soil/permafrost cap out.

      That, or a pingo somehow very rapidly melted out. But then we have to explain the debris field around the hole that looks like ejecta.

  11. Rex Wahl

     /  July 25, 2014

    Rapidly expanding gasses to force the ejecta up and out. The volume of dirt moved is impressive from images. Inward melting wouldn’t have formed the ejecta. Also note the ejecta in both cases has no or little vegetation on it, while all around is green. No expert on tundra vegetation growth rates, but these look to be very recent and sudden soil turnover events (‘pop”).

    I recommend this blog to others, especially due to the global scale and quality of the writing and commenter’s comments. Thanks Robert!

  12. Don’t call it a ‘compost bomb’ though, it’s NOTHING to do with compost! Compost doesn’t even produce methane, if it’s done right, and kept aerobic.
    Call it an ‘anaerobic digester bomb’ if you *have* to use the bomb word.

  13. dizzysparkle

     /  July 26, 2014

    Reconstructing the exact mechanism & scenario isn’t immediately necessary to be able to jump to the most obvious probability until further observation proves otherwise. This was a warming permafrost event of abrupt methane release almost certainly unprecedented in modern geology. Whether this event typifies the begining of a rarely recurring trend which it probably does requires the utmost intensive study to as rapidly as possible discover its pattern before it fully emerges. When boiling something on the stove, I remember how impatient I become for that first bubble to prove that it is actually cooking & how far that seems from the full boil I’m looking for.

  14. lewiscleverdon

     /  July 28, 2014

    Robert – I’ve a question I hope you can answer which concerns the potential scale of permafrost methane output this century. Last August you posted an article on the Yedoma outputs:
    which referred to observations in recent years of its annual outputs of 44Mt CO2 and 4Mt of CH4. At the time I misinterpreted this as an 8.3% CH4 fraction of carbon released (4 / (44+4) = 0.083). This contrasts starkly with Archer’s assumption of a maximum of 2.7% of carbon emitted as CH4, particularly under the notably conservative finding by Shuur et al of a 1.6GtC output globally by 2080. In CO2_Eq terms on the 20yr horizon an 8.3% CH4 output from a 1.6GtC release would equal overall around 60% of present anthro-CO2 emissions.

    However, I now see that the accurate interpretation is of 4Mt CH4 / 1.333 = 3.0GtC, and of 44MtCO2 / 3.664 = 12.0GtC, implying a 20% CH4 fraction of the carbon release. If the 4:44 observations are correct, then with the spread of melt-pools as a common result of thawing and with the steady ‘Migration of Rainfall’ poleward, we can expect this ration to become increasingly common across the tundra. Which implies that permafrost melt is liable to become a major component of AGW far earlier than is yet recognised.

    So my question is simply this, can you post the links to the reports where you learned of the 4:44 ratio if the Yedoma’s GHG outputs, as I should like to explore those reports in depth.



    • Yedoma is a vast area of permafrost containing at least 500 gigatons of frozen carbon. At time the article was written, approximately 4 mt carbon was projected to be coming from terrestrial stores and that most of this carbon was CO2. Another large release in the range of 4-8 mt per Shakhova, Simeletov and others was estimated to be coming from the submerged ESAS.

      A recent paper, entitled Dissolved Organic Carbon…, found that around 44 mt of carbon, mostly in the form of CO2, was destabilizing along coastal erosion zones where the loess was being exposed. The paper did not explicitly provide a methane portion.

      Since this time, Shakhova has altered ESAS release estimates to 17 mt.

      Finally, we had a 2006 paper (second link below) which finds 3.8 mt/tg methane being released annually from permafrost lakes between 1974 and 2000. The paper also found an increasing rate of methane release and estimates that the total annual release from northern wetlands was between 6-40 megatons methane per year (an over all increase of between 10-63 percent).

      In my view, this is a spotty record that does not contain enough detail to accurately extrapolate a true and accurate CO2/methane portion. CARVE/ABOVE has identified that goal as a primary mission.

      Other links:

  15. Bernard

     /  July 29, 2014

    Another one?

    1. Yamal Peninsula
    2. Antipayuta, Taz district
    3. Nosok, Krasnoyarsk region

    • The depths plunge right down to the hydrate zone.

      Some locals describe the hole forming with an explosive flash.

    • “Some locals describe the hole forming with an explosive flash.”

      Looks like the methane now combusts upon release. Of course, they may decide to ban all smoking in Russia… as if that’ll help.

      • Apparently, if the methane is exposed to certain chemicals that can be present as permafrost melts, there’s a risk of explosion. Fun.

  16. Reblogged this on <a href=""Fin des Voies Rapides, thank you!

  1. Soil carbon and climate change: from the Jenkinson effect to the compost-bomb instability | ClimateState
  2. Rapid sea-ice loss may increase the rate of Arctic land warming by 3.5 times – affecting permafrost | ClimateState
  3. Brief Check-In: Earth, Geopolitical, and Personal | Exopermaculture
  4. The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Crater Found | robertscribbler

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