The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Crater Found

Yamal Hole

(One of three massive holes found in Siberia. The prominent theory for the holes’ formation is a catastrophic destabilization of sub-surface methane under thawing tundra. Image source: The Moscow Times.)

Add salt, sand, and thawing methane pockets buried beneath scores of feet of warming permafrost together and what do you get? Massive explosions that rip 200-300 foot deep and 13-98 foot wide holes in the Siberian earth.

The name for the place where this strange event first happened, in Russian, is Yamal, which roughly translates to mean ‘the end of the Earth.’ Now, three holes of similar structure have appeared over a 700 mile wide expanse of Siberian tundra. The most likely culprit? Catastrophic destabilization of Arctic methane stores due to human-caused warming.

A Tale of Dragon’s Breath: How the Yamal Event Likely Unfolded

About 10,000 years ago, as the great glaciers of the last ice age gave up their waters in immense surges and outbursts into the world ocean, a broad section of Siberian tundra was temporarily submerged by rising seas. But with the loss of the great glaciers, pressures upon the crust in these zones subsided and, slowly, the newly flooded tundra rose, again liberating itself, over thousands of years of uplift, from the waters.

The land remained frozen throughout this time, covered in a layer of ice — solid permafrost hundreds of feet deep. But the oceanic flood left its mark. Salt water and sand found its way into cracks in the icy soil, depositing in pockets throughout the frozen region’s earth.

And there this chemical brew remained, waiting to be deep-frozen and sequestered as the glaciers of a new age of ice advanced over the Earth.

Arctic Warming Trend 1960 to 1990

(Arctic warming trend from 1960 to 1990. Image source: NOAA.)

But this event, foretold and anticipated in the bones of Earth, did not come to pass. Instead, human beings began dumping billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. They dug up mountains of ancient carbon and burned it. And now those mountains of carbon lived in the air, thickening it, trapping heat.

For Siberia, this meant rising temperatures. At first, the increase was slow. Perhaps a tenth of a degree per decade. But by the time the 20th Century was closing and the 21st Century emerged, the pace of warming was greater than at any time even the Earth could remember — an increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius or more every ten years.

Now, the glaciers will probably not return for hundreds of thousands of years, if ever. And now, the brew that was waiting to be buried is instead thawing and mixing. A deep, heat-based cracking of the frozen soil that flash-bakes an alchemical mixture deposited over the ages. The result: dragon’s breath erupting from the very soil.

Explosive Eruptions From Smoking Earth

One Taz District local described the day the crater formed–

The earth was first observed to smoke. This continued for some time and then a bright flash followed by a loud bang exploded above the tundra. After the mists and smoke cleared, a large hole surrounded by mounds of ejected soil was visible. The hole tunneled like a cone more than 200 feet down. Its walls were frozen permafrost.

Siberian Craters Map

(Broad expanse of Siberia containing three massive holes, indications of explosive eruptions in the permafrost set off by thawing methane mixed with salt, water and sand. The holes are all in the range of 200-300 feet deep. Deep enough to contact subsoil methane pockets or, in some cases, frozen clathrate. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

A single event of this kind might be easy to overlook as an aberration. A freak case that might well be attributed to unique conditions. But over the past two weeks not one, not two, but three large holes, all retaining the same features, have appeared within the same region of Yamal, Russia.

A single event may well be easily marked off as a strange occurrence, but three look more like the start of a trend.

Weather Underground notes:

The holes may foreshadow bigger problems for our planet in the near future, scientists worry. Permafrost around the Arctic contains methane and carbon dioxide, and both could be dangerous to our environment if released, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As long as the permafrost remains frozen, the report adds, this isn’t a concern, but climate models have painted a grim future for rising temperatures in the Arctic.

And with temperatures in the Arctic, and especially over Siberia, rising so fast, the permafrost is not remaining frozen. It is instead thawing. And together with this thaw comes a growing release of carbon stored there over the 2-3 million year period since the ice ages began their long reign. It is a release we can expect to continue together with human-caused warming. One that is critical to abate as much as possible, if we are to have much hope for a climate favorable for human beings and the continuing diversity of life on this world. How rapidly and violently the Arctic responds to our insults depends on how hard we push it. And right now, through an amazing human carbon emission, we are now pushing the Arctic very hard.

Jason Box, a prominent Arctic researcher and head of the Dark Snow Project, noted Sunday in his blog, Meltfactor:

What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions. This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies. This is an all hands on deck moment. We’re in the age of consequences.

If the warming trends continue and fossil fuel burning does not abate, these holes may be only minor explosive outbursts compared to what may follow. In any case, given current trends, it appears entirely possible that more and more of these strange holes will be appearing throughout the Arctic. An ugly sign of the danger inherent to our time.

Links:

Another Siberian Hole Discovered

Not So Mysterious Hole Found in Siberia

Two New Holes Appear in Siberia

Is the Climate Dragon Awakening?

Siberian Tundra Holes are a Mystery to Me

Is this the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun?

It’s All About Frozen Ground

Arctic Climate: A Perspective For Modeling

 

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54 Comments

  1. Colorado Bob

     /  July 30, 2014

    Weather goes crazy in Siberia – with record high temperatures, then July snow

    Thermometers have been yo-yoing in July as Siberia copes with weather extremes that have seen record-breaking summer temperatures in major cities. Despite this, freak hailstones larger than hen eggs hit Kemerovo while a beach and park in Novosibirsk was left with an icy sheen of white, like in winter.

    In Chelyabinsk region on the western fringe of Siberia, snow fell giving a ground cover of up to an unprecedented ten centimetres in the southern Urals.

    In Magadan, in the extreme east, three months of rain fell in a day and a half, with locals water skiing along highways.

    Last month, Yakutsk – capital of Siberia’s coldest republic, Sakha, also known as Yakutia, recorded its highest-ever 21 June temperature of 35C.

    Another northern regional capital Khanty-Mansiysk has also enjoyed unusually balmy weather this summer.

    On 12 July, the city of Tomsk hit 35.9C, a maximum, and on the same day records were broken in Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, Kemerovo and Barnaul, according to weather source http://www.meteo-tv.ru
    http://siberiantimes.com/ecology/others/features/weather-goes-crazy-in-siberia-with-record-high-temperatures-then-july-snow/

    Reply
    • What an absolute mess. From the satellite measures we see a very strong dipole over Siberia now. Mangled Jet Stream again.

      Reply
      • mikkel

         /  July 30, 2014

        Robert, have you seen any of the stories starting to pop up in the media which talk to farmers and fishermen about climate change? They are still infrequent, but the general theme is “I didn’t used to believe [or was hesitant] about global warming, but the last few years have seen record highs and lows alternating from year to year; with freak weather occurrences I’ve never seen in 40 years.”

        The “we have a really hard time fishing or growing because we can’t predict anything” is going to be a very powerful message for turning the tide of public opinion.

        Reply
        • I see it in many news reports. The US Midwest, and west coast fishermen especially. Unfortunately, media doesn’t do a broad capture of global farmers.

      • mikkel

         /  July 30, 2014

        Well they don’t do global anything, but considering the new meme is “even IF global warming exists, the US will be perfectly fine” then it is very important. Much more so than anything scientists put out IMO, since at this stage obviously that stuff is preaching to the choir at this point.

        Reply
        • Hmm. Good point. I’ll have to think about this. Might be worth doing the work to interview some farmers/fishermen RE warming.

      • mikkel

         /  July 30, 2014

        I think it totally would! For two reasons:

        The first is that farmers are very conservative and so have a much different way of looking at the world and communicating it — one that is effective towards other (true) conservatives.

        The other is that farmers must adapt rapidly and must think systemically. Some articles point out how radically they have changed practices in the last couple of years and how much further research/tinkering they’ll do in the near future, with the understanding that if they don’t then they will have no livelihood in 5 years. This rapid of a change is obviously needed by all of society and they give a positive and concrete example of its possibility.

        I was particularly made aware of the systemic thinking part when I was at a family reunion and describing my job (using systems theory to research biology) to the older extended family, 70% of who are still farmers and the rest grew up on farms. They understood the premise of chaos theory and variability, resiliency, etc. better than 99% of the “educated” populace.

        Unfortunately, these sorts of people are being bred out of the system due to massive agrobusiness that tries to mechanize everything, but I still have optimism that collectively there is the right mentality.

        Reply
  2. ivice

     /  July 30, 2014

    Not good… Popular media not at all covering these stories. No mention of permafrost methane stores and possible implications, whatsoever.
    Unfortunately by warming “only” 0,85 C has resulted in dangerous feedback- loop activations.
    Now, the “Catch- 22” is, through global dimming we’ve managed to hide an additional 1,1 C built in the net warming.
    All it takes for this 2 C “set-up-limit- warming” to manifest is running out of fossil fuels- and the additional pollution particles (mainly sulphates) that go along with it.
    So, we’re already at 2 C, theoretically. Threfore our next exit would have to be 3- 3,5 C; which is already a near- extinction event.
    So either some intelligent and good- willing extraterrestrial delivers us the technical tools- and of course ENERGY, to sort this out- or-
    we can hope for technological advance on our own, to practiically non- heat producing (η= 80- 90%) carbon capturing methods on a global scale.
    I wouldn’ t count on the negative feedbacks too much…

    Reply
    • 481 CO2e is about 3.8 C total warming, long term.

      The rough measure gives us expected 1.9 C warming this century from the current forcing without taking into account aerosols.

      We will definitely need atmospheric carbon capture if we hope to prevent 2 C in addition to near immediate large reduction of carbon emissions together with an energy switch.

      MSM is asleep at the helm on this one. No surprise. They will report the event if they have to. As in when a very large hole blows out beneath the ocean and sets off a tidal wave while dumping 1-10 gigatons of methane into the air. Something like that might get their attention.

      Reply
  3. Colorado Bob

     /  July 30, 2014

    Rising Levels of Human-Caused Water Vapor in Troposphere will Intensify Climate Change Projections

    A new study led by scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science confirmed that rising levels of water vapor in the troposphere – the layer of the atmosphere closest to the surface and rises to a height of between 5 to 20 km above Earth’s surface – will increasingly play an important role in climate change projections in the coming years.

    The Florida researchers said their new study is also the first to demonstrate that the increasing amount of atmospheric water vapor is being caused by human activities.

    The researchers wanted to find out what was causing a 30-year trend of increasing water vapor in the upper troposphere.

    http://blogs.voanews.com/science-world/2014/07/28/rising-levels-of-human-caused-water-vapor-in-troposphere-will-intensify-climate-change-projections/

    Reply
  4. Bernard

     /  July 30, 2014

    The first photo at the top of this post seems to show a large and a small grey spot to the top left of the crater. Could those indicate a lightning strike?

    Reply
  5. Colorado Bob

     /  July 30, 2014

    PRESS COUNCIL FINDING AGAINST THE AUSTRALIAN
    The Press Council has upheld a complaint against The Australian about a story it published in September 2013, a week before the release of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC).
    And talking of complaints, let’s wrap up with a ruling from the Australian Press Council .

    http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4055787.htm

    Reply
    • Hmm, the corporate media misinforms to the point of lying on climate change and gets a hand slap one year after the fact.

      I wonder how much influence these misinforming news reports had on Australia’s recent removal of a price on carbon? The corporate media flirts with criminally misinforming the public.

      Reply
  6. Colorado Bob

     /  July 30, 2014

    Topic: Siberian permafrost hole/blowout

    http://forum.arctic-sea-ice.net/index.php/topic,926.0.html

    Reply
    • Good to see TAIB taking this one on.🙂

      Reply
      • Dave Werth

         /  July 31, 2014

        It occurred to me as I was reading the comments on TIAB that other lakes in the region may have been formed in a similar manner (perhaps during the Holocene optimum). It would be interesting to take some cores from the middle some of them to see if a connection could be made.

        Reply
      • Dave Werth

         /  July 31, 2014

        I think that the exposed sides of those holes would collapse in to the hole filling the bottom in a relatively short time (on geological time scales). Also, when water fills them that probably has a further destabilizing effect on the sides. Over time regular silt would fill them further. You’d be able to see if that happened in core samples from other lakes.

        Reply
  7. Colorado Bob

     /  July 30, 2014

    SWERUS C3- What is it all about? (in English)
    by SWERUS-C32 months ago55 views
    Expedition leaders Örjan Gustafsson and Martin Jakobsson discuss the purpose and logistics of SWERUS-C3

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtWFfqYaUXCwzwfKJ9sAvlA

    Reply
  8. Loni

     /  July 30, 2014

    With the discovery of the first one of these holes, the example provided was, “it’s like uncorking a bottle of champagne”…………..it appears that Mother Nature has a taste fer the stuff.

    Reply
  9. Griffin

     /  July 30, 2014

    I really didn’t expect Siberian Puberty to emerge THIS quickly. I thought the “zits on a teenager” reference by Colorado Bob was meant for at least a little ways more in the future!
    3 is definitely a pattern…

    Reply
  10. Robert, I hope you don’t mind me posting a poem here that I wrote and which seems quite apt. Others have read it on my blog but I thought your readers might enjoy it, as may you. A bit of a plug so if it offends delete away!

    Goldilocks, Goldilocks how
    Thick is your hair?
    Is it clear that you
    Are precisely there?
    But a wisp from
    The edge of despair,
    Forever revolving from
    Those hungry bears

    The situation precarious
    From my first breath,
    Exhaling my vapour to
    Consummate the rest,
    Reflecting Ra at
    His midday best,
    But a hair’s breadth
    From the dead rest

    Others did perish at
    This distance form Ra’s
    Gleam, precarious was
    My divine sheen, their
    Unpalatable feast tempts
    My flatulence so, as
    They melt my precious snow

    Goldilocks, Goldilocks
    Do they know their luck,
    As they pluck and cluck
    And run amok?
    A delicate balance tipped,
    My flatulence now bubbles
    up, the trouble of
    The precariousness of us

    Reply
  11. New findings improved CO2 records (400 million years) based on leaf cellular structure/isotopes and suggest a higher climate sensitivity to CO2. http://climatestate.com/2014/07/30/co2-in-earth-history-the-past-400-million-years/

    Reply
  12. dizzysparkle

     /  July 31, 2014

    First I’ve heard of a smoldering smoke & then bright flash eye witness report. These are sudden volatile ignitions of deeply buried long dormant chemistry not seen until this time in history. We’re in for a rip roaring rooty toot toot.

    Reply
  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novaya_Zemlya Just asking, could this area be more sensitive form this history? the larger being closer to the bomb test… Is it related to the pattern on the “floor” or the Hudson Bay? I saw some mapping images in “Polar Explorer” DVD

    Reply
    • Yamal is quite a distance away from the nuclear test site at Novaya. And that was many years ago, so we might have expected a response from the tundra before then, if that was the case.

      I also think we tend to underestimate the heat forcing of human caused climate change. It equals about 4 hiroshima bombs per second globally.

      Skeptical Science put together a widget to represent this here:

      http://www.skepticalscience.com/4-Hiroshima-bombs-per-second-widget-raise-awareness-global-warming.html

      Since 1998, that’s more than 2 million Hiroshima bombs worth of heat forcing. Or, so far, a bit more than one such bomb for each 10×10 mile area of the Earth’s surface.

      Thanks for the question, Cindy.

      Reply
  14. Kevin Jones

     /  August 1, 2014

    Robert. That’s Billion, I believe. 90% of our 400,000 Hiroshima bomb e’s/day goes to ocean heating. But If spread evenly across Earth’s surface, New Hampshire’s share would be 18 per day. Am I right? p.s. Hey Mark from New England. Great visit. Thanks. (earth’s surface: 200,000,000 sq. mi. earth’s energy imbalance currently .6W/sq. meter= energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs/day. One Hiroshima bomb/500 sq mi/day. NH, 9,000 sq mi. 18 Hiroshimas/day for my tiny state) cheers

    Reply
  15. Kevin Jones

     /  August 1, 2014

    I remember Hansen stating that when presented with this .6W/sq. m energy imbalance equaling 400,000 Hiroshima bombs of heat per day, he didn’t believe it either till he checked the math.

    Reply
  16. Kevin Jones

     /  August 1, 2014

    Jonathan Weiner in The Next One Hundred Years Shaping the Fate of Our Living Earth (1990) wrote: Numbers like these make you want to bang your head against a wall…..
    and writing then with plenty to write about, could he’ve imagine numbers like these?

    Reply
    • Probably not.

      Our carbon emission is many times worse than the worst flood basalt in geological history. It’s terrible. The fact that the menace, so large, is mostly invisible to the greater populace is even more terrible.

      We need to start thinking of our coal and gas plants like human-made exploding volcanoes. Our fossil fuel cars on highways, twice a flood basalt all by themselves. Our lust to consume industrial farmed meat, another flood basalt…

      Even nuclear weaponry cannot compare to these.

      Reply
  17. lisa beitsch

     /  February 25, 2015

    Hey, do you want to see what these methane blowouts look like when they happen? i am almost sure this is one happening that was filmed in russia in november and is on youtube… here it is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcrRfOB1SmM

    Reply
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