Extreme Temperature Diary-April 29, 2018/ Topic: Thermokarsts…Methane Blast Holes

Sunday April 29th… Dear Diary. The main purpose of this ongoing post will be to track United States extreme or record temperatures related to climate change. Any reports I see of ETs will be listed below the main topic of the day. I’ll refer to extreme or record temperatures as ETs (not extraterrestrials)😊. Here is today’s main climate change related topic: 

Thermokarsts…Methane Blast Holes

Yesterday I was a little surprised that so many of you were interested on what positive feedback loops might do to the planet via the response from my post on methane; therefore, I will do more. We are dealing with a lot of unknowns here, but I will endeavor to report the latest good science without becoming overly alarmist. For today I will report one consequence of Arctic thawing not mentioned in yesterday’s post already making an appearance on the planet.

After doing more research I came across an article showing some odd looking crater-like holes from Siberia. The physical process for the formation of these blast holes has some ominous implications. The holes are forming where the Arctic tundra is thawing allowing microbes to eat previously frozen organic material excreting methane as much as a couple of hundred feet beneath the surface. When enough warmth and pressure builds, just like a volcano, a whole will blow open from the ground releasing pent up methane, sometimes via a small explosion. Usually these methane explosions do not ignite. Here is the article I am referring to:


Enough of these blasts could prove deadly for the climate, but so far, we don’t see enough to throw up our hands and definitively declare that we are seeing a positive feedback such that it’s game over for the climate. Quoting from the article:

According to Russian scientists, this sudden release could have led to the explosions. How fast and how frequently this is happening remain controversial topics in the scientific community, given that Siberia is so remote and unexplored. But scientists do agree that Siberia’s permafrost is in danger of melting as the globe warms.

Permafrost is soil that stays frozen all year long. Any organic matter, like dead grass or animal corpses, caught up in permafrost stays frozen, too. But as the Arctic warms, the depth of the spring thaw gets deeper and deeper — a process called active-layer deepening. As the soil thaws, the organic material locked inside begins to decompose all at once, releasing flammable gases such as methane, University of Michigan postdoctoral researcher Ben Abbott told Live Science in March. In some cases, this release is slow, Abbott said. Other times, the soil can collapse dramatically, creating features called thermokarsts. These can look like landslides, slumps, pits or craters. Some fill with water and become lakes.

Past research suggests that warming can cause explosive changes in the landscape. A study released in June found that at least 100 giant craters formed in one region on the Arctic seafloor about 11,600 years ago as the ice sheet retreated and destabilized mounds of frozen methane underneath. These mounds, call pingos, sometimes blew craters up to 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) wide into the ocean bottom. Some Arctic scientists think something similar is happening in Siberia today.

Pingos, or soil-covered permafrost hills, occur on land, too. If they melt rapidly, they could release a fiery burst of methane and create craters similar to the ancient ones seen on the seafloor. Previously, Siberian researchers had discovered craters that had never been seen before, but they had not published any information on the ages of the craters or scientific analyses of how they’d formed. The new eyewitness accounts from local herders suggest that the formation of these craters may, indeed, be violent.

 A crater on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, reported in the spring of 2017. Credit: Itar-Tass/Zuma Credit: LiveScience.com

After looking at some of these holes my little “ain’t this neat” bulb went off in my brain. Phenomena like thermokarsts are what made a lot of us go into the natural science fields in the first place. Storm chasers, many of whom are my friends, love the beauty of tornadoes yet respect their deadly power. While thermokarsts aren’t nearly as deadly as tornados these neat looking, relatively new oddities might be real unwanted pests, foreboding a new hot climate to come. 

To delve more into why the issue of methane is so scientifically complicated please read this Economist article posted yesterday: 


In the next couple of weeks I’ll post some more expert opinions on positive feedbacks. We will find out if we should to be worried about that “methane bomb” that has gotten recognition on some blog sites that haven’t cited much peer reviewed material. 

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The Climate Guy



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