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Top Russian scientist says gas pipelines supplying Europe in danger from exploding tundra

11 July 2017

Russia's leading expert on the release of methane by melting permafrost, Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky of the Oil and Gas Research Institute in Moscow, has said energy infrastructure in polar regions is now under direct threat from the process. He said pipes built over unstable Arctic ice plugs were being deformed and could be hit by explosions when the methane reaches the surface.

Site of pingo explosion - Image: Dr Alexandr Sokolov, Yamal Region
Site of pingo explosion - Image: Dr Alexandr Sokolov, Yamal Region

According to The Siberian Times, two new craters were discovered on the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia in early July, with one reported to be 8 metres in diameter and about 20 metres deep. The news source said a local reindeer herder witnessed the explosion that led to the creation of one of the craters.

Local TV reported that the reindeer herder was near a hill that exploded, with fire and smoke rising from the ground and large chunks of soil flying out from the epicentre. After the explosion the hill had vanished.

The Siberian Times said this evidence was consistent with the scientific theory that these craters can be formed by exploding pingos, plugs of expanding ice that cause the permafrost to bulge upwards forming mounds or small hills. When the plugs melt as the Siberian climate gets warmer, methane trapped underneath the ice escapes to the surface and can ignite.

This crater has been examined by a group of scientists led by Dr Alexandr Sokolov, deputy head of the Arctic Research station of the Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, during an expedition to carry out long-term monitoring of the Yamal peninsula’s terrestrial ecosystems.

The Scientific Centre for Arctic Research said its sensors recorded a seismic event, which was probably associated with a gas explosion.

At least ten pingos are known to have exploded in Siberia in recent years forming large craters, of which four have been closely examined by scientists. One recent pingo explosion threw permafrost soil a kilometre from its epicentre, giving an idea of the forces involved.  

Some are close to the infrastructure associated with the peninsula’s extensive oil and gas industry. One of the recent discoveries is close to Sabetta port, which is being built as part of a $27 billion project by Yamal LNG  on the Ob River estuary to export 16.5 million tons of liquefied gas from the Yuzhno-Tambeyskoye field.

Bogoyavlensky said villages and towns were also under threat, but the risk of explosions under gas supply pipelines was clearly acute.

The Siberian Times said the issue of Yamal tundra explosions is to addressed at the next meeting of the Russian government's state commission on exploration of the Arctic.

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