Amanda Maxwell

Dec 11th 2020

Climate History Exposed by the Crumbling Batagaika Crater


There’s a widening split in the Earth’s surface in the East Siberia taiga, or forest. It’s around 0.6 miles long with crater walls measuring over 300 feet to its floor. Local Yakutian people won’t go near what they call the “doorway to the underworld” because of the constant crashing emanating from the chasm as its walls collapse, according to Atlas Obscura.

The Batagaika Crater fascinates scientists as it grows bigger each year (30 to 100 feet), slowly revealing thousands of years of climate history. The crater may even give us insight into how climate change could alter the land we live on.

Opening the Door to the Underworld

So, how did the door to the underworld open? In the 1960s, forests covering the area around the Batagaika Crater were removed. Without its cover, the tundra heated up and its permafrost started to thaw. As the ice melted, the ground started to slump and distort. This in turn affected tree growth, and the protective forest cover hasn’t been able to grow back. Each year, the ground heats up, more permafrost thaws and, as NASA’s Earth Observatory has recorded, the crater grows.

A multisensory satellite imaging study published in the journal Environmental Earth Sciences shows that the crater has grown three times larger between 1991 and 2018, and the fastest increase took place most recently between 2010 and 2014.

Treasures From the Deep

Opening the door to the underworld has had some benefits. With each slump and collapse, the Batagaika Crater exposes more of the Earth’s history in the region. As the walls peel back on the world’s largest permafrost crater, thousands of years of history are exposed, unearthing long-buried strata lines of sediment and prehistoric vegetation. Along with fossils and extremely well-preserved, long-extinct animals, scientists have been able to study the layers of ice age and vegetation growth stretching back over 200,000 years.

Science Alert shows how data from this megaslump — or thermokarst — is helping researchers learn more about climate change. By examining the morphology of each layer and the plant remnants they contain, the scientists can then build a picture of what the landscape looked like and what kind of climate formed it.

In addition to extracting blood from a 42,000-year-old foal, described here by Smithsonian Mangazine, climate scientists have been able to conceive how plant life adapted to temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide fluctuations. Information like this is extremely valuable in dealing with climate change.

Unleashed From the Underworld

However, other climate-change “gifts” driving the growth of the Batagaika Crater and effecting similar areas might not be so welcome. Although warmer conditions are a boon for Arctic exploration, thawing permafrost is releasing some unpleasant surprises.

Scientists have already seen the ice release long-extinct pathogens still capable of causing disease. What the ice held safely in isolation is now bubbling back up to the surface. Heavy metals within the permafrost are now mobile, and toxic waste dumps can leach into water supplies.

As The Narwhal notes, it’s not only toxins such as mercury or industrial waste that affect the landscape; the thaw affects the landscape itself, altering ecosystems and food supplies for the animals and humans that make the Arctic region home. Even the world’s global seed vault buried in permafrost on the Svalbard Archipelago is at risk.

And the thaw itself is also contributing to climate change. Loss of permafrost releases not only carbon dioxide stores but also methane into the atmosphere. Arctic permafrost stores around 1.4 billion metric tons (around 1.54 tons) of carbon, according to The Narwhal, making it one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. Furthermore, warming the land activates microbes that can break down vegetable matter into methane, which then bubbles into the atmosphere through the newly permeable tundra. It’s also raining more, which drives further thawing.

The Batagaika Crater might be a door that is difficult to close.