Nova episode explores Arctic methane explosions

Rod Boyce
Jan. 31, 2022

Mysterious massive holes have been appearing across the Arctic landscape, and a team of scientists is investigating the cause and the impact in a new episode of the public television science series Nova airing Wednesday.

“Arctic Sinkholes” follows several scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and elsewhere as they seek to understand these holes, which are openings created by underground methane explosions.

The episode airs 9 p.m. Alaska time Wednesday on KUAC TV 9.1 and will air again on KUAC at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6. It premieres on public television stations nationally on Wednesday and will be available for streaming at and through the PBS video app timed to its broadcast debut.

Siberian crater
Photo by Vladimir Pushkarev, Reuters via Nova
A member of an expedition group stands on the edge of a newly formed crater on the Yamal Peninsula in northern Siberia in November 2014.

As the Arctic warms, methane that has been locked in permafrost for thousands of years escapes and can explode. Released methane that finds its way to the surface contributes to the greenhouse effect of climate change with even more heat retention capacity than carbon dioxide. Even igniting it doesn’t solve the problem, since that produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

“Arctic Sinkholes” shows scientists at work in Alaska and Siberia.

In Alaska they find a large lake bubbling with methane. On Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, residents have reported large holes in the frozen tundra, including one more than 80 feet wide and 150 feet deep.

The scientists find evidence that the Arctic landscape is basically a fossil methane reserve.

University of Alaska people involved in the show include geophysics professor Vladimir Romanovsky and research associate professor Dmitry Nicolsky, both of the UAF Geophysical Institute; Ph.D. student Nicholas Hasson and research professor Katey Walter Anthony, both of UAF’s Institute of Northern Engineering; field technician Philip Hanke; and Janelle Sharp, regional director of the Alaska Native Science and Education Program.

If permafrost thaws, then that's a scary wild card in the climate change story, because we think there's a huge amount of methane and natural gas trapped inside permafrost and under permafrost,” Walter Anthony said. “So if permafrost becomes like Swiss cheese with lots of holes in it, then you can have chimneys where that gas is erupting out.”

In a press release from the series, Nova co-executive producer Julia Cort said the impact of methane coming out of the Arctic is “potentially enormous.”

“Making accurate predictions about the future depends on good data, and ‘Arctic Sinkholes’ reveals what scientists have to do to get that data, as they try to measure an invisible, odorless gas that’s underground in some of the most remote and challenging environments in the world,” she said.

View the trailer here.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Photographs are available at