A giant sinkhole in Siberia brings Russia’s past back to the surface

A giant sinkhole in Siberia brings Russia’s past back to the surface

As the world warms, Russia’s permafrost is melting more than two-thirds of its territory, threatening cities and towns built to house miners sent to explore underground veins of oil, gas, gold and diamonds. Even roads crack, give way and collapse, as in a slow-moving earthquake. On the outskirts of a town called Batagai, in the heart of Siberia, a hole known to the indigenous people as “the door to the underworld” is rapidly opening.

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From space, it looks like a crack embedded in a coniferous forest. The Batagaika Crater is more than 800 meters deep and about a kilometer wide, and is growing as the ground beneath it melts. The cliff wall retreats 120 meters every year, revealing treasures previously hidden by ice.

The earth exudes the past and swallows the present, creating an impressive escarpment, even more impressive than the massive open-pit mines that already dot the Siberian landscape. This should serve as a warning about the dangers of extraction, but Russia, like many other countries, continues to squeeze its natural resources, oblivious to the threat of greater disruption that will come with climate change.

Russia is not the only country facing problems caused by dangerous thawing permafrost. In Canada, depressions such as Batagaica have turned stunning forests into desolate mudflats. In China, the Tibetan Plateau began to retreat. In Alaska, homes in rural villages are collapsing as the coastline sinks into the sea.

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Many of the consequences of climate change have a major impact on developing countries, which have historically contributed little to global emissions. But thawing permafrost is disfiguring lands in many of the countries most responsible for the crisis, a mockery of the human error that has led these countries to extract oil and minerals from the ground with no regard for the consequences.

Although Batagaika is sinking mainly as a result of climate change, mineral extraction has also contributed. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Russia invaded Siberia mainly because of the desire for animal skins that could be obtained from the northern forests. In the twentieth century, the Soviets, hungry for minerals and isolated from global trade networks, desperately searched for the resources needed to fuel their rapid industrial and technological expansion; Diamonds, gold, silver, tungsten, nickel, tin, coal and of course oil and gas had to be extracted as quickly as possible from the vast eastern regions. The Soviets sent gulag prisoners to work on the Bermajil grounds because that was where the treasure was buried. Prisoners died trying to dig it, and many ended up underground as well.

In 1937, a Moscow geologist discovered pool springs near the present-day village of Batagai. When the Soviets settled and exploited the area, they cut down the forest that protected the land from the warm heat of the sun and fixed it in place. The permafrost has survived other warming cycles without melting, but deforestation appears to have been crucial. Varlam Khalamov, a former prisoner of the labor camps, is described in his biographical collection Stories from Colima (Ed. Smallcase) A mass grave emerged among the stony ground. “The earth collapsed,” he wrote, “exposing its vaults, which contained not only gold, lead, tungsten, and uranium, but also decomposing human bodies.” Permagel can keep secrets, but he can also bear witness to crimes.

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For scientists, Patagayka provides invaluable information about the past 650,000 years or so of Siberian history, including animals that have long since disappeared there. In 2018, hunters found a 42,000-year-old foal from an extinct horse species in Batajica.

In another area, in 1946, labor camp prisoners found a nest containing 30,000-year-old mummified Arctic squirrels. Other permafrost secrets include a cave lion cub, a severed Ice Age wolf head, and a woolly rhinoceros. The half-thawed permafrost has become a muddy, smelly treasure for people searching for mammoth remains, which can be sold for a very high price. In some areas of the tundra, you may stumble upon prehistoric bones protruding from the ground.

Sometimes the material that appears in the permafrost is not dead. In another region of Siberia, the warm earth has resurfaced 24,000-year-old invertebrates that were able to reproduce once the ice melted, and 46,000-year-old worms that scientists say returned to life in 2018.

Permafrost is critical to global climate because of what it can hold. Once it begins to reveal its secrets, it sets off a dangerous feedback loop: melting leads to more precipitation and snowpack, which in turn keeps warmer air in and colder air outward and expands the active layer at the top of the permafrost. Which melts seasonally. Permafrost soils worldwide contain about 1.6 trillion tons of carbon, about twice the amount found in Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists call it deep ancient carbon, made up of plants and animals that froze before decomposing. Batagaica releases between 4,000 and 5,000 tons of carbon per year, along with huge amounts of water and sediment.

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For better or worse, Patajica Crater reaches maximum expansion as the ground erodes down to the bedrock that marks the end of the permafrost. But across Siberia, fires and deforestation, combined with air temperatures rising at a much faster rate than the global average, are accelerating the melting of permafrost, creating more problems. Thousands of years old carbon explodes into the atmosphere, emitting a foul odor and causing the Earth’s temperature to rise even further. Mammoths, squirrels, worms, bacteria and carbon blocks discovered by melting ice are ghosts of the past ready to settle scores.

Copyright The New York Times

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