The Batagaika crater, a.k.a. the door to the underworld, a.k.a. the megaslump (we are not making this up), plunges into the permafrost in the northern Sakha Republic.
The kilometer-long, 328-foot-deep chasm has been growing since the 1960s as the result of climate change. As the permafrost thaws and softens, large sections of soil collapse, revealing a wealth of bizarre geological and biological material. Extreme weather events like flooding have accelerated the process. The crater is now gobbling up another 33 to 98 feet of tundra per year, emitting enormous booming sounds as large clods of soil fall in.
It sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but it’s also a scientist’s dream: a ready-made window into the world below the surface, going back hundreds of thousands of years.
“Its size is amazing,” researcher Julian Murton told the Siberian Times. “The crack itself is perfectly exposed, uncovered, all the layers are perfectly visible and can be thoroughly studied.”
Initial estimates put the soil in the deepest part of the chasm at around 120,000 years old, but Murton’s analysis of plant matter in the dirt found it was probably closer to 200,000 years.
The soil and its contents are a rich record of local life, including two wood-rich layers that Murton and his colleagues believe were once forests.
Additional exploration of the chasm has yielded the bodies of bison, horses, elks, mammoths, and reindeer, as well as a 4400-year-old foal, all beautifully preserved by the region’s year-round blistering cold.
The chasm is fascinating but problematic. Climate experts are concerned that the dissolution of the permafrost is unleashing thousands of years worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere. It’s “what we call positive feedback,” Frank Günther of Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute told the BBC. “Warming accelerates warming, and these features may develop in other places.”