Massive craters have been appearing explosively in western Siberia's Yamal Peninsula for some years. While it was suspected that methane gas had welled up into the tundra as it thawed and caused the explosions, more scientists are looking into this mysterious phenomenon.
Now, a new study from the Woodwell Climate Research Center has identified three new craters in the region, and according to drone photography, 3D modeling, and artificial intelligence, the craters may be strongly linked to climate change.
Sudden changes happening across the Arctic
There have been 17 craters documented so far. Last year, the 17th hole appeared in the Yamal and Gyda peninsulas, and since it was "uniquely well preserved," it allowed scientists to study the crater better, CNN reports.
A team of Russian scientists visited the crater in August 2020, and this was the first time researchers were able to use a drone to study a crater in depth. Now, their findings have been published in the journal Geosciences.
In order to get to the bottom of these holes, the researchers used satellite data of the area to create an AI-based model with Google Earth Engine's cloud computing platform. The model was able to show all seven craters that had been reported by scientists by 2017. Moreover, it uncovered the formation of three new ones.
Building off of the model, the researchers saw that the craters begin forming deep underground in taliks, which are pockets of thawed earth that form under Arctic lakes when the water in them warms. Methane can increase in these taliks, leading to explosions.
"These craters represent an Earth system process that was previously unknown to scientists," said Sue Natali, Arctic program director at Woodwell Climate Research Center and study co-author, in an emailed statement to Gizmodo.
Moreover, the model revealed previously unnoticed changes across the region. Between 1984 and 2017, about 5 percent of the examined area, went through ecosystem changes such as "shifts in vegetation, elevation, and water extent" with entire lakes dying off due to the permafrost that forms their outer edges and bottoms melting away with the rising temperatures. The area also became greener, and the ice melt is causing some parts of the region to sink.
As Natali explained, "The craters and other abrupt changes occurring across the Arctic landscape are indicative of a rapidly warming and thawing Arctic, which can have severe consequences for Arctic residents and globally."