It’s in the frozen remote north, so frozen and so remote that even Robert Service did not dream of it. Life and everything else stops here. Frozen earth heaping over frozen earth, ice capping on ice, growing, frozen from the top in, going frosty from the bottom up. A massive pimple of land and ice, swelling slowly, pinguid with frost.
And then something thaws. Deep below, the permafrost loses its perm. The gases in the ground expand, and bingo: with a “pingo!” the mounded earth is popping over the environs. And in place of the lumping obstacle is a gaping orifice.
This, anyway, is what some people think caused the 80-metre-wide hole in the Yamal Peninsula, surrounded by burst and spurted earth. No meteorite was seen that could have done it, and anyway the shape is wrong. Something erupted from below, a pocket of gas no longer held down by permafrost and the plug of ice above.
Was the eruption a pingo? Oh, no, how misleading. What was there before the eruption may have been a pingo. A pingo is a big mound of earth made by heaving and accumulating frost. It grows slowly, a fingertip’s length a year. Pingos may collapse, yes, but not normally so spectacularly. This was an exploding ex-pingo.
The word may seem to be expressive, a verbal performance of something pushing the flat earth up like a popping bump of plastic or metal. But actually it’s taken from an Inuvialuit word, Greenlandic dialect, and it first meant something like nunatak, except that a nunatak is a peak poking through the ice while a pingo is a peak perceptible under the ice. It was European geographers who borrowed it to refer to these permafrost pimples, which are especially abundant near Tuktoyaktuk. Europeans also added a /g/ to the pronunciation, so it now rhymes with bingo rather than thing-o.
So where is this Yamal Peninsula? If you’ve never heard of it, it’s not the end of the world. Or actually, it is, as the news media have been fond of pointing out in the stories today about this pit. In the local Nenets language, Yamal means ‘the end of the world’. But not the end with the penguins. Have a look at a map of Asia. Look at the top of Russia, the rough backbone of Siberia against the Arctic Ocean. There’s a canted eyebrow of an island east of Scandinavia: that’s Novaya Zemlya, which means ‘new land’. Directly south of its eastern tip, across the Kara Sea, is the Yamal Peninsula. New land lies above the end of the world, just like the heaped earth around the new crater that’s an empty pit, a pinhole somewhere in that gelid tip, the opening that perhaps was a pingo.