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In the heart of Siberia’s boreal forest, a massive crater the locals call the “gateway to the underworld” has been growing for the last fifty years. It appears in the form of a huge gash on earth, a kilometer long and one hundred meters deep at one end.

Named after the nearby flowing Batagayka river, a tributary of the river Yana, the Batagaika crater is what geologists call a thermokarst depression —cave-ins which results when the permafrost melts, and although the Batagaika crater has no connection to the underworld, as the Yakutian people believe, it is still something to be feared of as these “slumps”, that are increasingly appearing across the northern hemisphere, could represent an ominous sign of things to come as the world continues to warm.
The Batagaika crater, in the Sakha Republic in Russia, started to form in the 1960s after a chunk of forest was cleared for industrial use, triggering a series of catastrophic geologic and environmental events. The vegetation provides insulation that keeps the ground cool. Once that was removed, the summer heat was able to penetrate deeper into the ground causing the permafrost to melt, and the area began to slump. The crater has been growing ever since, becoming bigger and bigger with each passing year as the climate continues to change.

Dr. Julian Murton, a geology professor at the University of Sussex, believes that the Batagaika ‘megaslump’ —so called because of its gigantic size— will continue to grow until it runs out of ice or becomes buried by slumped sediment. If the Siberian climate gets warmer or wetter, which he believes is quite likely, we are going to see other megaslumps develop in the region.

“In some sense, Batagaika does provide a view to what has happened in the past and what is likely to happen in the future. As the climate warms – I think there’s no shadow of a doubt it will warm – we will get increasing thaw of the permafrost and increasingly development of these ‘thermokarst’ features. There will be more slumps and more gullying, more erosion of the land surface,” Dr Murton said.

“I think there’s growing evidence over the last few decades that thermokarst activity in the northern hemisphere has been increasing in extent and intensity,” he adds.

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