Expanding up to 98 feet per year as the permafrost warms, the crater is opening up to reveal ancient forests and other curiosities.
Back in the 1960s, the rapid removal of forest in a part of Eastern Siberia resulted in a loss of shade during summer months. Sunlight warmed the ground, a condition that was compounded by the loss of the tree’s cold “sweat” that also once helped the ground to stay cool.
As the surface of the ground warmed, so did the layers beneath it – the permafrost began to thaw, the ground began to slowly collapse. As more ground collapsed, more ice was exposed to warmer temperatures … and thus the Batagaika crater was born.
Fast forward and the crater – officially known as a “megaslump” or “thermokarst,” though known to the local Yakutian people as the “doorway to the underworld” – is not only the biggest crater in the region, but the biggest of its type in the world.
And it’s getting bigger, every day.
Located 410 miles northeast of the region's capital city of Yakutsk, researchers say that the .6-mile long and 282-feet deep crater is expanding rapidly. The wall of the crater has ballooned by some 33 feet a year on average over the last decade of observation – however, just looking at the warmer years reveals a dramatic growth of up to 98 feet per year. The side of the crater will likely reach a nearby valley as summer approaches, which could further hasten its collapse.
"On average over many years, we have seen that there's not so much acceleration or deceleration of these rates, it's continuously growing," researcher Frank Günther from the Alfred Wegener Institute told the BBC, "And continuous growth means that the crater gets deeper and deeper every year."
And aside from the obvious inconveniences of, you know, the surface of the planet collapsing on itself, it has further reaching consequences as well: It may expose carbon stores that have been tucked away in the permafrost for millennia.
"Global estimations of carbon stored in permafrost is [the] same amount as what's in the atmosphere," Günther says. "This is what we call positive feedback," he adds. "Warming accelerates warming, and these features may develop in other places.”
On the bright side however (and honestly, bright side might be a stretch here), now a new study reveals that the freshly exposed layers may give researchers a sneak peak at 200,000 years of climate data. That research was led by Julian Murton from the University of Sussex, who says that the exposed sediment could be useful for understanding how the climate of Siberia changed in the past, and predicting how it will change in the future.
Other things the opening of the doorway to the underworld is revealing? Aside from man's folly – long-buried forests and the frozen carcasses of a musk ox, a mammoth, and a 4,400-year-old horse ... with new curiosities sure to be discovered, more quickly than anyone may hope for.