BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Warm times and wet climes lie ahead for our dear old planet Earth, and if you didn’t know that, then I suggest that you flip on the news or even just get your ass off the couch and go for a walk. As the icecaps shrink and carbon dioxide reserves continue to increase, cold, dry lands grow increasingly damp and soggy. This might sound great at first glance – who wouldn’t want something like Siberia to open up into an arable farmland or a tropical getaway? – but like everyone who plays god, mucking about with the climate comes with some unforeseen long-term consequences that may have dire repercussions down the line.
The remote Bely Island sits just north of the Arctic icecap. Naturally, these northern archipelagos remain frozen year round; a healthy dose of permafrost lies just beneath the grasslands and taigas. The ground stays frozen for thousands of years; animals like dogs, lions, and even bygone Ice Age beasties might stay perfectly preserved in these titanic meat lockers. The island sprawls over a massive gas sink that dates all the way back to the age of the dinosaurs.
In recent years, however, the big chill grows less and less chilly as warm meltwater from the north, combined with rising sea levels, threaten to swamp the island and its inhabitants. In 2016, Siberian geologists, farmers, and other sons of the earth discovered a series of bizarre and ominous incidents taking place (literally) just under their feet.
Siberians respect these northern latitudes for their ample supplies of “bulgunyakhs,” Russian for “bubbles.” These deposits of underground gases form naturally with the thawing and freezing of the ice, resembling gigantic earthy pimples rising out of the topsoil. Much like pimples, squeezing them hard enough can be hazardous to your health. When pressure builds, they detonate, sometimes violently, and release stinky gasses like methane into the atmosphere, leaving behind characteristic, foul-smelling “funnels” in the ground. Bulgunyakhs might bubble for thousands of years, and this natural process has led to the characteristically pockmarked, jagged terrain of the Siberian tundra.
In recent years, however, Siberia’s seen far more bubbles – and they’re getting more destructive than ever. The upswing of bungulyakhas threatens to undermine the permafrost; the craters they leave behind may drastically alter the climate of the islands by preventing the ice layer from healing itself.
In 2016, for instance, geologists and surveyors observed more than 7000 instances of bungulyakhas on Bely Island alone. Moy bog! What’s going on? The gas reservoir that the island sits on hasn’t grown more active; rather, the melted ice has seeped under the island, flowed into the traps, and forced up more gas from below, leading to a drastically increased upswing in bubble production. Though we’re still not exactly sure how to stop this problem, scientists hope that a mixture of global positioning satellites, seismic maps of the Earth’s surface, and some good old fashioned guesswork will track down the bubbles and warn locals about any upcoming potential trouble spots. Either way, pack your gasmasks, because it’s going to get smellier before it gets any better.
Watch the bubbles move below.