One of Earth’s most recently formed craters looks like a massive tadpole from the air. It is a thermokarst depression deep in the East Siberian taiga, a vast ecoregion located in the heart of Russia’s Siberia. The crater, formed by melting permafrost—the result of global warming—is 328 foot deep and over half a mile long.
The chasm is dubbed the Batagaika Crater, and locals refer to it as a “gateway to the underworld.” Its location, in the middle of a vast boreal forest, is no accident. The catastrophic chasm probably wouldn’t exist if not for the surrounding trees, because it’s presumed that the crater was inadvertently created when a swath of forest land was cleared. The Siberian Times reports that happened in the 1960s when the land began sinking, and the crater was formed.
Recent warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have continued to melt the permafrost, accelerating the sinkage of the crater. Major flooding in the region in 2008 also contributed to the crater’s growth. Similar craters have been reported in northern Canada, but none come close to the vast size of the Batagaika Crater, also known as the Batagaika ‘megaslump.’ The geologic event in Siberia is two to three times the size of the next largest crater with a similar origin story.
“I expect that the Batagaika megaslump will continue to grow until it runs out of ice or becomes buried by slumped sediment,” Said Dr. Julian Murton, a geology professor at the University of Sussex. “It’s quite likely that other megaslumps will develop in Siberia if the climate continues to warm or get wetter.”
The Batagaika site contains a remarkably thick sequence of permafrost deposits, which include two wood-rich layers interpreted as forest beds that indicate past climates about as warm or warmer than today’s climate.
From the crater, paleontologists can get a view of Siberia’s history during the ice age, where Murton and his co-researchers have found a mummified bison carcass, and frozen animal remains such as a musk ox, a mammoth and a 4,400-year-old horse.
The melting of the permafrost is destructive as it contains vast amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas more dangerous than carbon dioxide. Today, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and surpassing current CO2 levels.
But Batagaika crater, which first appeared about 25 years ago, is also a sign of the rate at which the world is warming – smaller ones have been appearing increasingly across the northern hemisphere.
If it were all to melt – a process that would start on an epic scale after about four degrees of warming – it would likely tip the planet into an extreme scenario the full horror of which is hard to describe.