Methane blasts holes in Siberian tundra, prompting warnings

Smoke, flames and a tremendous blast marked the most recent formation of a new crater in the thawing tundra of the Yamal Peninsula in Russia recently.

Reindeer herders in the village of Seyakha in Siberia’s far north reported that on the morning of June 28, they saw and felt the eruption of fire and smoke, an event that was caught on seismic sensors. Scientists rushed to the scene of the blast to photograph the crater that had been blown into the bank of a river.

And this month, another new crater was discovered in the Tyumen region of Siberia. Some local herders told Aleksandr Sokolov, a researcher at the Institute of Ecology of Plants and Animals in Russia, they had heard the explosion and seen the fire in the region of the crater sometime earlier this year.

These events are known as “end-of-the-world” phenomena to locals, and scientists have now identified over 700 additional sites where large swellings in the ground formed by thawing methane gas have been observed- calling them ticking time-bombs.

What’s behind the strange explosions?

University of Michigan postdoctoral researcher Ben Abbott explains that Permafrost is soil that stays frozen all year long.The Yamal Peninsula in Russia is an energy-rich region, inhabited by the indigenous Nenets people and workers in the oil and gas industry.

However, with climate change, the Arctic region is slowly warming, and the spring thaw is getting deeper every year. All the frozen organic matter, like dead grass and animal carcasses, thaw as the permafrost thaws, except that it happens, seemingly, all at once, releasing flammable gasses like methane.

Dr. Abbott points out that in some cases, the release of gasses is slow, but sometimes the event is dramatic and can actually reshape the landscape, creating craters called thermokarsts. The craters can look like landslides, huge holes or slumps. Some of the craters fill with water, forming lakes.

The remains of hundreds of huge methane domes found on sea floor.

Reason to be concerned over growing number of craters

Remember now, that the Yamal Peninsula is energy-rich, holding Russia’s biggest natural gas reserves. The region is also home to the 572 kilometers (355 miles) long Obskaya–Bovanenkovo railway, completed in 2011, the northernmost railway in the world. Russian gas company, Gazprom operates the vast Yurkharovskoye gas field, estimated to hold 55 trillion cubic meters of LNG.

The crater that formed on June 28 is only 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Sabetta, a newly developed port on the Ob River that’s used to transport liquefied natural gas from the Yuzhno-Tambeyskoye gas field. Additionally, there is growing concern about the impact of the methane gas explosions on any infrastructure that has been added to the landscape in the region. There is actually some danger.

“It is very important for us also to know what to do because such an eruption can occur anywhere,” Alexander Mazharov, deputy governor of the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region in Siberia, told. “It might hit a technical facility, a residential settlement or a linear object,” he said, referring to a pipeline or railroad.