Batagaika – Gateway to the Underworld | Polarjournal
The crater appeared in the 1960s after the forest was cleared in the area for road construction. (Photo: s-vfu.ru)

Known to the locals as the “gateway to the underworld”, “Batagaika” is the biggest result of permafrost thawing on the planet. Once just a ravine on a deforested slope in the 1960s, the scar has grown year after year as the permafrost thaws and the meltwater drains the sediment. Today, “Batagaika” is more than 1,000 meters wide and embodies the vulnerability of permafrost in the Arctic, where temperatures have risen twice as fast as the global average over the past 30 years.

Record-breaking summer temperatures across Siberia are opening up the “Batagaika” mega-slump, which locals call the “gateway to the underworld,” at an unprecedented pace. (Photo: Thomas Opel)

The Batagaika crater in the Eastern Siberian Republic of Sacha appeared in the 1960s after forest was cleared for road construction in the area. It is currently the largest mega-slump in the world, with a length of about one kilometre and a depth of 100 metres. It continues to grow in size and depth, while climate change is melting the permafrost layer of the rapidly heating up region. The structure is named after the nearby flowing Batagaika, a tributary of the Jana.

The spread of the crater over the last four years is clearly visible. (Photo: ESA / Copernicus Sentinel-2)

The diameter of “Batagaika” is now shifting outwardate at about 12 to 14 meters per year, the science magazine Science quoted Frank Guenther, a permafrost researcher at the University of Potsdam. Before 2016, permafrost had advanced at 10 meters per year, he said.

As the crater expands, scientists and archaeologists are discovering well-preserved remains of animals and plants that have been extinct since the Ice Age. In 2018, the fully preserved ice mummy of a foal of the extinct wild horse species Equus caballus lenensis was found in the “Batagaika” Megaslump. Scientists at the University of Yakutsk estimated the age at 30,000 to 40,000 years. The site also provides insight into climate data from 200,000 years ago.

Scientists announced that they dissected the preserved specimen discovered during a paleontological expedition in the Batagaika Basin in August 2018. (Photo: Michil Yakovlev / North-Eastern Federal University)

Kseniia Ashastina, a paleobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told the journal Sciencethat local indigenous groups fear the crater: “It devours their land, devours the trees and their sacred places.”

The city of Verkhovyansk, 75 kilometers from Batagaika and one of the coldest inhabited places on earth, experienced temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius in June, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic.

As temperatures continue to rise, scientists believe that processes caused by climate change, such as the ever-expanding crater of Batagaika, will become even more intense.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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