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Enormous sinkholes the size of city blocks discovered on Arctic seafloor

By: April Carson

On a remote part of the Arctic seabed, marine scientists have discovered enormous sinkholes -- one larger than a city block of six-story buildings -- and ice-filled hills that formed "very quickly."

Researchers discovered the stunning adjustments in The Beaufort Sea, which they attributed to thawing permafrost submerged beneath the seabed, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle and ship-mounted sonar.

The researchers discovered significant changes in the birds' ranges between 2010 and 2019, during which four cartography projects had been conducted, covering a region of up to 26 square kilometers.

"The magnitude and rate of change we are seeing in the Arctic is unprecedented," said lead author Jeff Kerby, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Kerby said that the findings could have major implications for local ecosystems and global climate change.

The researchers found the first time that an area of submerged permafrost, a frozen layer of Earth's surface, has been investigated in this way. It's unknown how widespread similar changes are across the Arctic.

In the past few decades, scientists have witnessed a radical shift in northern landscapes due to thawing permafrost. This includes ground collapses and lake formation as well an assortment of other features like mounds called pingos or craters formed by blowouts that release methane gas trapped within frozen soil layers! These extreme changes are happening right now all over our planet's largest continental ice cap - The Arctic Sea.

"We've been able to put technology in the water and see that changes are taking place offshore for the first time," says Charlie Paull, a senior scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and one of the lead authors of a PNAS paper published Monday on the subject.

"Clearly, such dramatic changes would have a significant impact on any infrastructure that might be built on the seabed. There is currently little infrastructure in this far-flung part of the Arctic. However, as continued heating makes the region more accessible, this may change," he continued.

"If you're thinking about putting a pipeline across the Arctic seafloor, or an oil platform, you need to be aware that the seabed is actively changing and that large sinkholes have formed recently. It's something that needs to be considered in any future planning."

Permafrost covers one-quarter of the planet's surface, including vast areas under the sea. This is due to the fact that at the conclusion of the previous ice age approximately 12,000 years ago, significant portions of permafrost were submerged as glaciers melted and sea levels rose.

The researchers discovered 41 steeply-sided holes in the 10-square-mile (26-square-kilometer) study area, which was mapped in 2010 and 2019, that weren't visible before. The cavities were generally circular or oval in shape and measured 22 feet (6.7 meters) deep. Around the size of a city block comprised of six-story buildings, the greatest change was a depression 95 feet (29 meters) deep and 738 feet (225 meters) long and 312 feet (95 meters) wide -- roughly comparable to an entire city block made up of six story structures.

According to the study, the researchers discovered "numerous" hills, which were typically 164 feet (50 meters) in diameter and 33 feet (10 meters) high, that were filled with ice. They are comparable to pingos — frozen mounds on land -- according to the investigation. The pingos were first spotted on a previous expedition by the same team in 2010.

The sinkholes and hills were found above the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that runs 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) from Russia to Canada. The ridge is also where the North Pole is located.

It was surprising, according to Evgeny Chuvilin, a Skoltech research scientist in Russia who has studied the Siberian permafrost, to observe changes like these happening so rapidly.

"Permafrost degradation is a long process. We're typically talking about centimeters each year. This isn't simply deterioration; it's also an aesthetic change. So, yes, I would agree that it's unusual to see," says Chuvilin, who wasn't involved in the study."

"It's the first time we've seen these things directly," says one of the researchers.

"Hypotheses suggesting they might exist had been discussed in the literature, but this is the first time they have been observed."

The craters are so huge that they have been compared to impact sites found on the Moon and Mars. In areas of the Russian Arctic where pockets of methane gas built up beneath the surface, spectacular cataclysms occurred.

The researchers determined that the seafloor sinkholes didn't have a comparable origin, however. The team didn't discover any rocks or dirt on the ocean floor, which would have been dispersed as a result of such an explosion.

To put it another way, the study did not find that seals were failing or being impacted negatively by rising sea levels or other factors. Furthermore, brackish (slightly salty) water near the bottom of the ocean suggested that the seawater was mixed with groundwater and submarine permafrost wasn't a sealed system where overpressure might build up.

"We don't have proof that these fast changes are associated with spectacular events," Paull clarified. "It's all about context."

The impact of global warming

Many of the landscape changes observed on terrestrially frozen ground have been linked to higher temperatures as a consequence of climate change, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the global average. The researchers said that, despite human-caused climate change, the shifts they'd identified could not be explained by natural causes.

"We don't have long-term data for the seafloor temperature in this region because we're conducting the first study on subsided permafrost decay. We don't have long-term data for the surface water temperatures in these areas, either, since they're all around 150 meters (almost 500 feet) deep," Paull added.

The gaps in the ice, on the other hand, are more likely to have been produced by much longer and slower climatic changes that are linked to our emergence from the last ice age and seem to have been occurring for thousands of years.

In other areas, heat carried in over time by subterranean water systems is causing subsurface permafrost to decay, forming huge sinkholes and ice-filled hills called pingos.

As the Arctic continues to warm, these sinkholes and other permafrost features are likely to become more common. And as they grow in number and size, they could create new challenges for the people and animals that live in the region.

Permafrost thawing has not been restricted to Earth's poles. The massive sinkholes that formed in the course of the study were caused by water-filled cavities, which replaced the ice that had previously been trapped within the permafrost. When these caverns collapsed, enormous sinkholes appeared rapidly as a result of this research, said Dr. David Dyck from Western University (Canada). The pingo-like mounds grew where brackish water produced by permafrost decay migrated upward and froze, blistering the seafloor with ice-cored mounds.

While the temperature of the groundwater was unknown, it might take thousands of years for an ice column to form if it was 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) above freezing, according to the research.

Subsea permafrost, unlike land-based permafrost, has a much slower response time to climate change in terms of climate effects. "Changes described in this research are responding to events that occurred over the century-to-millennial time frame," said Sue Natali, Arctic program director and senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. "These changes may still have an impact on climate if they result in the emission of greenhouse gases as subsea permafrost thaws." Natali was not involved with the work.

The researchers say that the discoveries have major implications for our understanding of how climate change will impact the Arctic in the future.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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