Inside Siberia's Doorway to the Underworld

In an interview with the BBC, researcher Frank Günther of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany described what's happening in Siberia, saying "This is what we call positive feedback." If you stop reading, without getting the context for that comment, this could come off as a really nice story. It gets pretty grim from this point on, though, even though no demons are involved.

The Batagaika crater in the Chersky Range is what scientists call a "megaslump," a crevice in the earth caused by rapidly warming permafrost. At six tenths of a mile long and nearly 300 feet deep, it is the largest geological feature of its kind. It's also growing, sometimes at a rate of 30 meters per year.

"On average," according to Günther, "over many years, we have seen that there's not so much acceleration or deceleration of these rates, it's continuously growing. And continuous growth means that the crater gets deeper and deeper every year."

Nothing perma about it

Okay, so there's a half mile pit, known by locals as a "doorway to the underworld," slowly expanding across the Siberian tundra. Make a note to watch your step the next time you're taking a constitutional a few kilometers outside of Ese-Khayya. Simple as that, right?

Not quite. The problem, as is so often the case, comes down to climate change difficulties — more specifically, carbon being released into the atmosphere, and the sheer amount of carbon that could potentially be released by the continuing erosion of the permafrost, which has been helpfully containing greenhouse gases for thousands of years without so much as asking for a "thank you." According to Günther, "global estimations of carbon stored in permafrost is [the] same amount as what's in the atmosphere." As more permafrost melts, the faster the planet will heat up, causing more permafrost to melt, and more gases to be released. That's what he was referring to earlier in the "positive feedback" quote.

What, you thought this was going to be a nice story about a doorway to the underworld?