Siberian crater may have been caused by methane gas, scientists say

Scientists say cause of Siberian crater may be methane, a greenhouse gas far worse than CO2

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 4:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 4:23am

Researchers have long contended that the epicentre of global warming is also farthest from the reach of humanity.

It's in the barren landscapes of the frozen North, where the sun barely rises in the winter and temperatures can plunge dozens of degrees below zero. Such a place is the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, translated as "the ends of the Earth".

Many have heard of the crater on the Yamal Peninsula that suddenly appeared, yawning nearly 65 metres in diameter.

There's now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news is not good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article: "Air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane - up to 9.6 per cent - in tests conducted at the site on July 16, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia.

"Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179 per cent methane."

The scientist said the methane release might be related to Yamal's unusually hot summers in 2012 and 2013. "As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground," the report said.

Plekhanov explained to Nature that the conclusion is preliminary. He would like to study how much methane is in the air trapped inside the crater's walls.

"Gas pressure increased until it was high enough to push away the overlaying layers in a powerful injection, forming the crater," explained geochemist Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten, of Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute, adding that he's never seen anything like the crater.

Some scientists contend that the thawing of such terrain, rife with centuries of carbon, would release incredible amounts of methane gas and affect global temperatures.

"Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane gas] on climate change is over 20 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period," said the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers with Stockholm University recently witnessed methane releases in the East Siberian Arctic Ocean. They found that "elevated methane levels [were] about ten times higher than in background seawater", scientist Orjan Gustafsson wrote in his blog last week.

"This was somewhat of a surprise … This is information that is crucial if we are to be able to provide scientific estimations of how these methane releases may develop in the future."

Two more craters have also been discovered in Siberia.

"If [a release] happens at the Bovanenkovskoye gas field that is only 30km away, it could lead to an accident, and the same if it happens in a village," Plekhanov said.