In the heart of Siberia's boreal forest gapes a monstrous chasm local Yakutians call a "gateway to the underworld," connecting this life to the next.
The ominous crater, which looms a mile long and reaches depths of nearly 400 feet, appeared without warning some 25 years ago. According to geological surveys, it's been growing at an annual rate of more than 60 feet. Yet, outside of Batagai, a rural town in the Sakha Republic's Verkhoyansk district, little is known about this natural phenomenon.
Based on what we do understand, the Batagaika crater probably isn't an entrance to hell. But it is likely a harbinger of something dreadful to come. And, predictably, climate change has a whole lot to do with it.
Sometime during the early 1990s, an industrial facility allegedly cleared a parcel of forest, not knowing that eviscerating the tree stand would kick off a catastrophic geologic event. As climate change worsened around the globe, unprecedented heat waves rippled across Yakutia—one of the coldest places on Earth—melting the exposed layers of glacial ice that had not been seen for up to 200,000 years. Then, one day, the land began to buckle and slump.
The Batagaika crater is what scientists are now calling a "megaslump": an immense void, or "thermokarst," in the geomorphology of a permafrost landscape. These sudden rifts appear when permafrost is allowed to rapidly thaw, causing scar zones to sink into the "saturated slurry." They can remain active for decades at a time. And while understandably terrifying, thaw slumps are a pretty typical feature in Arctic environments like Siberia.
But some scientists see the Batagaika megaslump as an anomaly, and a potentially irreversible sign of worse things to come.
"I expect that the Batagaika megaslump will continue to grow until it runs out of ice or becomes buried by slumped sediment. It's quite likely that other megaslumps will develop in Siberia if the climate continues to warm or get wetter," Dr. Julian Murton, a geology professor at the University of Sussex, told me.
Murton is currently one of the only people studying the crater, and has been visiting the remote site since 2009 in collaboration with the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at the North-East Federal University in Yakutsk.
To a paleogeologist, the unique location and remarkable size of the Batagaika crater can offer an exceedingly rare glimpse into the ice age history of northeast Siberia. Murton says his team has already uncovered the mummified carcass of a bison within the sediment, as well as the frozen remains of a musk ox, mammoth, and a 4,400-year-old Holocene-era horse.
"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," Murton noted. "The upper forest bed overlies an old land surface that was eroded, probably when permafrost thawed in a past episode of climate warming."
Right now, however, sinkholes are popping up across the Siberian frontier like a contagion. In northern Russia's Krasnoyarsk region, craters are literally bursting forth from the ground, and many scientists believe that unseasonably warm conditions are to blame.
"We have just learnt that in Yakutia, new information has emerged about a giant crater one kilometer [0.6 miles] in diameter," Vasily Bogoyavlensky, the deputy director of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told AFP last year. "Footage allows us to identify minimum seven craters, but in fact there are plenty more."
According to geologic records, Murton told me, the last time Siberia saw slumping of this magnitude was 10,000 years ago, as Earth transitioned from the Paleolithic Ice Age into the current-day Holocene. Today, greenhouse gas emissions reaching heights of 400 parts per million have far surpassed the CO2 levels of 280 parts per million that brought about the end of the glacial maximum.
In the near future, Murton plans to drill boreholes into the Batagaika permafrost and conduct a high-resolution analysis of the sedimentary layers, which will hopefully paint a picture of atmospheric conditions present during the last ice age.
"If we can understand how the landscape was altered then," Murton said, "it helps us to anticipate what may happen to Siberian permafrost terrain in the next centuries."