Mysterious Craters Are Just the Beginning of Arctic Surprises

It’s not just craters purportedly dug by aliens in Russia, it’s also megaslumps, ice that burns and drunken trees. The ongoing meltdown of the permanently frozen ground that covers nearly a quarter of land in the Northern Hemisphere has caused a host of surprising arctic phenomena.

Temperatures across the Arctic are warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of the globe, largely due to the reduction in the amount of sunlight reflecting off of white, snow-covered ground. “At some point, we might get into a state of permafrost that is not comparable to what we know for 100 years or so, some new processes that never happened before,” says geologist Guido Grosse of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany.

The mysterious craters in far northern Russia are just such an example. “There is nothing described in the scientific literature than can really, fully explain those craters,” says Grosse, who is headed to the Lena River Delta in Siberia this summer, which hosts a joint German-Russian research station. The most likely explanation for the newly discovered craters in Russia is an accumulation of methane over centuries or more that then burst out of the thawing ground sometime in the last few years. “High pressure built up and [the ground] literally popped open,” explains biogeochemist Kevin Schaefer of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. “If it is indeed caused by melting methane ice, we should expect to see more.”

These craters will then become lakes, which further thaw the permafrost around and beneath them as the water traps yet more heat from the sun. Similar new lakes are forming in depressions in the newly thawing lumpy landscape across the Arctic known as thermokarst. Such thermokarst lakes and surrounding marshes create the muddy conditions favoring microbes that break dead plant material down into methane. That methane then bubbles out of the lakes and ground and, where concentrated, can even be lit on fire, leading to cases of flames dancing above the ice.

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