Investigating the exploding permafrost of Siberia

Mysteries

MYSTERY WIRE — In the remote Yamalo-Nenets region of northern Siberia, strange, enormous rocky craters that have appeared in the permafrost are baffling scientists.

The first so-called “exploding crater” was discovered in 2014 by a helicopter passing near the Bovanenkovo gas field.

The latest, named C17 – which is up to 33 metres deep and approximately 25 metres in diameter – was discovered in August 2020, bringing the total count to 17 craters so far observed on the Yamal Peninsula.

Scientists, such as Yevgeny Chuvilin, from Moscow’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, are still trying to work out what exactly is causing mounds to build up under the earth’s surface, and then explode.

“Craters on the Yamal (Peninsula) are a new and little explored natural phenomena of gas emissions from the top layers of frozen rocks in the Arctic zone in Russia,” said Chuvilin.

While scientists caution that it’s too early to say definitively the cause and environmental impact of the craters, one of the leading theories is that thawing permafrost caused by global warming means the once rock-hard ground is now going soft, allowing bubbles of methane and other gases to gather and push their way up like air trapped under a pancake.

These gases cause mounds of earth to build up, which then explode, shooting gas and debris from the earth and leaving crater-like scars on its surface.

Russia is the leading global emitter of methane, connected not only to its oil and gas industry, but to numerous natural phenomena, of which the exploding craters in the Arctic north are just one small element.

According to data by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Russia produced 12,897 kt of methane, the equivalent of 16.9 percent of global emissions in 2020.

The United States, in second place, produced 12,286 kt of methane or 16.1 percent of global emissions.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is often overlooked as policymakers focus on carbon dioxide, which makes up about 70% of worldwide emissions and is generated mostly by oil, gas and coal burned in automobiles and power plants.

While accounting for just one-fifth of total emissions, methane’s heat-trapping potency is more than 80% greater than carbon dioxide’s during its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Methane also helps form ground-level ozone, a dangerous air pollutant.

About 40% of methane comes from wetlands and other natural sources but human activities are the primary cause, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

They include production and transmission of fossil fuels; livestock agriculture and rice cultivation; and waste decay from sewage plants and landfills.

Substantial volumes are lost from natural gas venting, leakage and flaring.

A United Nations report says substantial progress could be made on reducing methane emissions using existing technologies and without substantial costs, such as plugging pipeline leaks and treating or covering livestock manure.

New advances in satellite technology have an important role to play in this field, making it harder in the future for largescale leaks from the oil and gas industry to go undetected.

In 2020, despite the pandemic methane emissions from Russia’s oil and gas industry rose by 32 percent, according to research by the Paris-based data analytics company Kayrros.

Kayrros has developed a platform to monitor and analyse data from satellites in order to detect and attribute methane emissions to their source.

Antoine Halff, chief analyst at Kayrros, says this is a “significant step forward” in tackling the problem of methane leaks and holding those responsible accountable.

Ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November, Moscow did not sign on to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030.

Despite this, recent comments by President Vladimir Putin appear to show that he’s taking the issue more seriously than he has in the past, when he has been accused by critics of neglecting the issue.  

Speaking at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate, hosted by the administration of US President Joe Biden in April this year, Putin said a reduction in methane emissions could lead to a decrease in the global temperature by 2050.

“If in the coming thirty years we could reduce methane emissions twice, then the global temperature would decrease by 0.18 degrees by 2050, according to experts,” he told other world leaders.  

However, climate activists have been quick to point out that Russia isn’t always completely transparent when it comes to reporting data related to emissions and climate change goals.

According to Vasily Yablokov, the Climate and Energy Head for Greenpeace Russia, a new decree outlining the global warming impact of greenhouse gases “significantly” underestimates the rate for methane.

“Methane has a rate of twenty-eight, that means it is twenty-eight times stronger than carbon dioxide over 100 years. That’s a generally accepted evaluation. I don’t think it ever changed. But in this (new Russian) decree it is twenty-five,” Yablokov explained.

Experts agree that getting full transparency from polluting countries is a key part of the battle against climate change.

Meanwhile, scientists continue their work studying sources of methane across Russia’s vast and varied landscape.

On a recent expedition, geologists from Tomsk State University, take samples of moss from the massive Vasyugan swamp, the largest swamp in the northern hemisphere.

Further north, a huge concern is the melting of a vast system of frozen swamp land in the north of Western Siberia as a result of rapidly rising temperatures.

According to scientists, when these swamps melt, they release a large number of harmful gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Experts estimate that methane reserves in these swamps could amount to around 70 billion tonnes.

Far away from the swamps of Siberia, policy makers and scientists will soon be gathering in Scotland for the COP26 talks hoping to make progress on climate change goals.

One thing is clear – tackling the issue of methane, is an important part of the process.

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