A peculiar 100-foot crater opened up in a gas-producing region of northern Russia last month, and scientists are coming to initial conclusions about what caused it: Methane gas escaping from melting permafrost, possibly blowing through the ground in an explosion, according to reports.
Scientists' early assessment is just that, preliminary, but not without data behind it. The bottom of the crater tested for methane levels up to 9.6 percent of the air content, which is about 54,000 times normal levels.
The raised levels could be part of a pervasive increase in methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, escaping into the atmosphere. Two similar holes have been discovered in northern Siberia. More worrisome even than spontaneous cratering are the gas spikes observed at monitoring stations around the Arctic circle, data that prompts ice-and-climate scientist Jason Box to ask with alarm: WTF?
Russia's Yamal Peninsula sits above the Arctic Circle, and juts out into the northern Kara Sea. It's cold, but warming like most of the rest of the world. The summers of 2012 and 2013 were about 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal.
A leading permafrost researcher, Marina Leibman of the Earth Cryosphere Institute, told the New York Times's Andrew Revkin that the event might be a part of lake formation. Methane bleeds out from warming ice and soil until the pressure becomes so great that it blows a hole in the Earth. Leibman said that researchers found soil had flown many yards from the hole.
However unlikely, if such an event happened at the Bovanenkovskoye gas field, less than 20 miles away, it could cause an industrial accident, an archaeologist from the Scientific Center of Arctic Studies, Andrei Plekhanov, told Nature News.
The edges of the crater continue to melt, with material falling down, possibly more than 200 feet, to the bottom. "You can hear the ground falling," Plekhanov said. "You can hear the water running, it’s rather spooky.”
Yamal has become a region of strategic importance for Russian energy. "There is no alternative to Yamal!" Gazprom, the Russian gas producer says on its website. The area is vital to the "sustainable development of the Russian economy and welfare."
The Bovanenkovskoye field is the Yamal Peninsula's most important. It holds about 4.9 trillion cubic meters of gas, dwarfing the 2.4 tcm Marcellus Shale formation in the U.S. Russia plans to build pipelines to move the gas from the far north to hubs in central and western Russia, which supply Europe.
Scientists can't say yet if there’s a specific long-term risk to the industry from cratering related to chronic higher temperatures. The more likely threat to gas industry operations on the Yamal Peninsula comes this week from Western sanctions over the Kremlin’s activity in Ukraine.
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