Explosive Consequences of Climate Change in Siberia

By: James Brody

Currently, the consequences of climate change on terrestrial surfaces are the subject of scientific and legal inquiry for national and international legal bodies. For example, this summer in the Netherlands, “a court in The Hague accepted Cox’s line of reasoning [representing Miliuedefensie], ruling that Shell must slash its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels”[1] in order to meet Paris Climate targets. At the international level, the International Law Association published a report declaring nine principles to promote interstate cooperation in the face of displaced persons due to the rise in sea level.[2] As states grapple with the immediate and apparent threats resulting from climate change, scientific developments in Siberia contribute to the conversation that it is necessary to achieve tangible and speedy mitigation of climate change.

In 2014, the Siberian Times reported on the discovery of an 80-meter-wide crater.[3] Of concern was the proximity to a large oil field located 30 km away.[4] The Yamal Peninsula where it was discovered, whose name translates to “the end of the world,”[5] is a strategic energy region of Russia.[6] Results from an expedition made up of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Tyumen State Oil and Gas University, and Lomonosov Moscow State University, and review of satellite imagery established the hypothesis that the crater was formed due to “gassing in permafrost, the occurrence of tabular ground ice and permafrost’s response to fluctuations in climate change.”[7] Methane was detected at the crater site, leading to the claim that “the warm summer of 2012 produced an effect on ground temperature in 2013… [bacterial] gas in upper layers of permafrost [led to a] gas hydrate expulsion.”[8] In summary, global warming due to climate change is the leading theory as to the exploding hills in Siberia.

Between 2014 and 2021, approximately 20 craters have been discovered in the region.[9] Efforts to identify them began in earnest with the development of an algorithm that leverages the Google Earth Engine to detect changes in surface reflection, elevation, and water extent.[10] Of note, in 2017, “a powerful blowout, self-ignition and explosion of gas occurred with the formation of a giant Syakha Crater” after the mound had blocked the channel of the Myudriyakha River.[11] Scientists concluded that there exists a “serious threat of gas blowouts and explosions during drilling operations” due to observations of increased methane gas emissions and flares in the Yamal Peninsula while proffering the hope that the methane gases can be harnessed for local energy use.[12] At the end of the world, the necessity to reconcile climate change with damage to strategic initiatives is the leading element of the discussion.

As Russian experts attempt to ensure the safe and continued operation of pipelines and extraction of oil and gas, it is not enough to reflect upon the irony that the main deliverable of the region contributes to its present geochemical volatility. Furthermore, the Yamal Peninsula is a site of scientific and industrial study and a potential microcosm of global temperatures’ direct and visible impact due to climate change. Therefore, it is important to reframe and reconsider regional conventional energy in the context of tangible threats and to bolster unconventional alternatives.

Image from: BBC

[1] Diderick Baazil & Hugo Miller, The Man Who Beat Shell: How an Unknown Lawyer Won Historic Suit, Bloomberg (Jun. 16, 2021), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-16/-petrolhead-who-beat-shell-shows-how-law-can-fight-climate-change.

[2] International Law and Sea Level Rise: Report of the International Law Association Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise 29-40 (Davor Vidas et al. eds., 2019).

[3] The Siberian Times Reporter, Large crater appears at the ‘end of the world,’ Siberian Times (Jul. 15, 2014), http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/features/large-crater-appears-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Marina O. Leibman et al., A New Permafrost Feature – Deep Crater in Central Yamal (West Siberia, Russia) Is a Response to Local Climate Fluctuations, 7 Geography, Environment, Sustainability 68, 75 (2014).

[8] Id. at 76.

[9] Vasily Bogoyavlensky et al., Permanent Gas Emissions from Seyakha Crater of Gas Blowout, Yamal Peninsula, Russian Arctic, 14 Energies 5345, 2 (2021).

[10] Scott Zolkos et al., Detecting and Mapping Gas Emission Craters on the Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas, Western Siberia, 11 Geosciences 21 (2021).

[11] Bogoyavlenksy, supra note 9, at 3.

[12] Id. at 17.

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