Siberia, land of frozen lion cubs and inexplicable craters, is in the news again this week thanks to yet another wacky natural phenomenon. Is the ground supposed to bounce like that? Not really, but there’s a likely explanation: lots and lots of gas.
This extraordinary sight was witnessed by a group of research scientists working on the remote Belyy Island off Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula. According to the Siberian Times, when the researchers punctured the ground, methane and carbon dioxide were released, suggesting that a buildup of gases in the soil is at least partially responsible for its moon bounce-like quality.
This isn’t all that crazy if you know a little about tundra biology. Siberia is home to thick permafrost soils, which contain water-saturated organic matter built up over tens of thousands of years. A big concern, both here and elsewhere in the Arctic, is that as the Earth warms and these soils thaw out, microbes will start going to town on all that free food, releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the air. And when oxygen concentrations are low—as is often the case in waterlogged permafrost soils—decomposition of organic matter produces methane.
Methane, by the way, has about 84 times the global warming potential of CO2 over the short term, so we’d really prefer to keep it in the ground.
Researcher Alexander Sokolov told the Siberian Times that it’s been an unusually hot summer on this remote island, which isn’t too surprising in the context of the global heat wave we’ve been all enjoying for 14 record-smashing months. Could gassy, decomposing permafrost soils be a harbinger of our future? It wouldn’t be the first warning sign the Arctic has given us this year.