A Giant Crater in Siberia Is Belching Up Russia’s Past

A Giant Crater in Siberia Is Belching Up Russia’s Past
Katie Orlinsky

As the world warms, permafrost is thawing across two-thirds of Russia, threatening cities and towns that were constructed to house miners sent to dig up a subterranean trove of oil, gas, gold and diamonds. Even the roads are buckling, cracking and collapsing, as if in a slow-motion earthquake. And outside a small town called Batagay, deep in the Siberian hinterland, a crater is rapidly opening up — known to local residents as the gateway to the underworld.

From space, it resembles a stingray impressed on the coniferous forest. Already more than half a mile deep and about 3,000 feet wide, the Batagaika crater is growing as the ground beneath it melts. The cliff face retreats 40 feet every year, revealing buried treasures once locked in the ice.

The land is belching up the past and swallowing the present — creating a yawning hole even more dizzying than the huge open-pit mines that already scar the Siberian landscape. It should be a warning about the dangers of extraction, but Russia, like many other countries, continues to pillage its natural resources, undaunted by the threat of greater disruption still to come with climate change.

Russia is not the only country confronting the problems caused by dangerous permafrost melt. In Canada slumps like Batagaika have transformed scenic forests into bleak mudscapes. In China the Tibetan Plateau is collapsing. In Alaska houses in rural villages are sinking into the ground as the shoreline falls into the sea.

Many consequences of climate change fall hardest on developing countries, which historically have contributed little to global emissions. But permafrost melt is disfiguring land in many of the countries that bear the largest responsibility for the crisis — as if mocking the human error that led them to pillage the oil and minerals in the ground without considering the consequences.

While Batagaika is slumping primarily as a result of climate change, mineral extraction helped trigger it. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Russia conquered Siberia mostly out of a desire for the furs that could be extracted from its boreal forests. In the 20th, hungry for minerals and isolated from global trade networks, the Soviets searched desperately for resources to fuel their rapid industrial and technological expansion; diamonds, gold, silver, tungsten, nickel, tin, coal and, of course, oil and gas had to be wrested as quickly as possible from the vast eastern territories. The Soviets sent gulag prisoners to labor in permafrost country because that was where the treasure was buried. Prisoners died as they helped extract it from the earth — and many ended up in the ground themselves.

In 1937 a Moscow geologist discovered tin ore near the present-day town of Batagay. As the Soviets settled and mined the area, they cut down the forest that shielded the land from warming sunlight and held the earth in place. The permafrost survived previous warming cycles without melting, but this deforestation, it seems, pushed it over the edge. In his largely autobiographical collection of short stories, “Kolyma Tales”, Varlam Shalamov, a former gulag prisoner, described a mass grave that had burst out of the stony ground. “The earth opened”, he wrote, “baring its subterranean storerooms, for they contained not only gold and lead, tungsten and uranium, but also undecaying human bodies”. The permafrost can keep secrets, but it can also testify to crimes.

For scientists, Batagaika provides an invaluable glimpse into the past 650,000 years or so of Siberia’s history, including its long-vanished animals. In 2018 hunters found a 42,000-year-old foal from an extinct horse species in Batagaika.

Elsewhere in the region, gulag prisoners in 1946 found a nest of mummified 30,000-year-old Arctic squirrels. Other cryonic secrets of the permafrost have included a cave lion cub, a severed wolf’s head from the Pleistocene and a woolly rhinoceros. The melting permafrost has become a muddy, stinking treasure trove for people searching for mammoth remains, which can be sold at a high price. In some parts of the tundra, one can trip on prehistoric bones jutting out of the ground.

Sometimes the materials that come out of the permafrost aren’t even dead. In another part of Siberia, the warming ground has yielded a 24,000-year-old invertebrate that was able to reproduce once it was thawed and 46,000-year-old worms that scientists reportedly revived in 2018.

Permafrost is crucial to the global climate because of what it holds on to. Once it starts telling its secrets, it sets off a dangerous feedback loop: The thaw causes more precipitation and thicker snow cover, which in turn keeps warmth in, cold air out and deepens the active layer at the top of the permafrost that thaws seasonally. Worldwide, soil in the permafrost zone contains about 1.6 trillion tons of carbon — about twice as much as there is in Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists call this deep legacy carbon, composed of plants and animals that froze before they had a chance to decay. Batagaika releases 4,000 to 5,000 tons of carbon per year, along with immense quantities of water and sediment.

For better or worse, the Batagaika crater is reaching the limits of its expansion, as the ground erodes all the way to the bedrock that marks the end of the permafrost. But across Siberia, wildfires and deforestation, along with air warming much faster than the global average, are speeding up the permafrost thaw, creating more problems. The carbon of hundreds of millenniums is bursting up into the atmosphere, reeking of decay and warming the earth further still. The mammoths and squirrels, the worms and bacteria and the masses of carbon unearthed by the thaw are ghosts of the past, demanding a reckoning.

Sophie Pinkham is a professor at Cornell. Her forthcoming book is a cultural history of the Russian forest.

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