Siberian ‘Gateway to Underworld’ Batagay Ice Hole May Grow Amid Wildfires

Wildfires in Siberia could irreversibly affect the region’s permafrost and lead to the growth of the Batagay mega-slump — a huge scar in the landscape referred to by locals as the “gate to the underworld.”

Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years in a row, and there’s a lot of it around. Nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land area has permafrost beneath it, and Russia, home to Siberia, has a particularly large share.

Scientists believe that permafrost may play a key role in climate change, as it stores massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other warming gases that are then emitted as it melts. In the Arctic alone, permafrost is estimated to contain nearly double the current amount of carbon found in the atmosphere, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

A photo of a wildfire outside the village of Berdigestyakh, Siberia, in July 2021. Siberia has seen more wildfires this year after another severe fire season in 2021.
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

Another problem caused by melting permafrost is that it can drastically change the landscape. When ice-rich permafrost melts, it can lead to what’s called a thaw slump, where the ground collapses, leaving a large hole. Thawing drops can grow rapidly and damage infrastructure.

The thaw slump considered to be the largest in the world is the Batagay mega slump in Siberia.

The collapse is interesting to researchers because it holds clues to prehistoric life on Earth, holding “up to 200,000 years of geological and biological history” in its frozen depths, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Deadly wildfires have swept Siberia this year, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to order regional officials to do something about it and prevent a repeat of last year’s fires, the largest in Russia’s modern history.

Experts have told: news week there is a risk that the fires and further warming of the region will make the “gate to the underworld” even bigger.

“In general, it can be assumed that further warming of the region could lead to accelerated growth of the malaise,” said Thomas Opel, a paleoclimate and permafrost researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

He added that it appears that the growth rate of the malaise had already increased in recent decades, with wildfires posing an even greater risk.

“The area around Batagay has been subject to severe wildfires in recent years,” he said. “In any case, fire will do some damage to the vegetation cover that protects the permafrost from thawing. As far as I remember, forest fires have caused some slumps.

“From my point of view, a growing malaise would mainly ‘consume’ or ‘eat’ the existing landscape,” Opel said.

Julian Murton, professor of permafrost science in the Department of Geography at the University of Sussex, agrees.

“The fires would have to be very close to the crater to directly affect its growth,” he said news week† “But the fires could lead to permafrost thaw and possibly new slumps over time in places where they sweep over-sensitive, ice-rich permafrost.

“If fires kill or destroy the protective vegetation cover above the permafrost, it can lead to rapid soil warming and downward thawing of the permafrost over years to decades, depending on how long it takes for vegetation to recover.”

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