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What (Probably) Created The Siberian Craters Is Worse Than Inquisitive Aliens

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not saying it was aliens, because it wasn’t. [Editor's Note: But what if it was?!] The formation of the mystery holes in Siberia’s Yamal peninsula is tied to more terrestrial matters. But the probable cause is still unsettling.

Late last month, Nature reported on the latest findings from the original mystery hole that spurred both silly conspiracies and serious scientific inquiry. Aliens didn’t make the cut, nor did government missiles or meteorite impacts. Russian researchers who have visited the site claim that methane is the likely culprit. The giant holes were probably giant burps.

The weird aspect that sets these craters (three now reported) apart is that they look like impact craters—material rings the holes as if it was thrown out. That suggests something violently rising up from the Siberian dirt. Andrei Plekhanov, a Russian archeologist who took measurements of the original crater, thinks it was gas. He found that the concentration of methane in the air near the bottom of the crater was thousands of times higher than at the surface. If methane is really to blame, global warming is probably a factor, much more ominous than visiting extraterrestrials.

Northern Siberia is frozen. Temperatures there can plummet to 120 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The ground itself freezes solid, creating what is called permafrost, and that permafrost remains frozen year-round for millennia. Locked in the permafrost is a vast field of chilled, relatively stable methane gas. The only way to get it out is to raise the temperature.

Siberian Hole BODY The crater in the Yamal peninsula in Siberia is 30-meters wide and over 50-meters deep.

There is controversy among the Russian researchers as to what is thawing the Siberian permafrost, unlocking the methane within. Andrei Plekhanov and his team believe that unusually warm summers in 2012 and 2013 (about 5 degrees Celsius higher on average) accelerated the thawing, while other researchers argue that a longer warming trend is to blame.

Either way, the mechanism for crater creation would be the same: thawing permafrost slowly releases the methane within a section of soil, the gas gets trapped and builds pressure, and finally the surface gives way. The earth’s resulting gurgle would indeed throw material in all directions, producing something like what we’ve observed in Siberia.

As plausible as the methane theory is, there are still a lot of lingering questions. Exactly how and when these craters form is a mystery, as is their frequency. Will accelerating global warming increase the number of craters? Could a crater in a populated area cause real damage? Russian researchers plan more trips back to the craters to find out.

But it’s clear that methane has something to do with these holes, and that’s the more disturbing story. Global warming has accelerated the warming near the poles, thawing more permafrost, which in turn releases more methane–a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. That cycle is a positive feedback loop nested in a much larger global system warming our planet as it never has before.

The Siberian holes may be a small but telling symptom of a giant problem. I’ll take probing UFOs or DUNE sand worms over that any day.

Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

HT: Nature

IMAGES: AP Photo/Associated Press Television, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor

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46 comments

  • METHANE?!? Come on! “Methane reflecting light from Venus, blah blah blah.” I’m not saying it was aliens or orbiting weapon tests ;) , but it’s not f**king methane. You f**king liars!  ”Don’t tell them, they’re not ready.” F YOU. 

  • Global warming is a sad sobering fact.That being said, this is the Nerdist after all and you did mention Shi’hulud, the Great Maker… So here it goes. A sandworm could begin a new ‘spice cycle’ on Earth. Through its larva, sandtrout, large bodies of water could be contained and thereby transformed into the spice Melange, which could result in spice blooms. The surviving sandtrout would then coalesce and metamorphosis into a sandworm. The result could ultimately end with Earth being a volatile desert. …still better than the proposed end result of global warming though.

  • It would be nice if certain people would stop denying Global Warming and start looking to make changes otherwise the future looks bad for younger generations. Unless we all want to just believe in the Sand-worms/ET theory…Just saying.

    • Have any of you Al Gore groupies looked at the Vostok ice core data? The earth’s temperature is cyclic or at least has been for the last 400,000 years. If the groupies could get their way and do away with carbon dioxide all plant life would cease to exist and the side effect of that would be no or at least very low oxygen and the side effect of that would be creatures that need oxygen to live would cease to exist. Al Gore knows that what he is spreading is bull $shit but the groupies don’t.

      Some Universities, research organizations and Al Gore maintain the myth for the seemingly endless government dollars; Politicians maintain the myth for power. The groupies should be spending their effort and money trying to figure out how the human race will survive the next inevitable ice age.

  • This is kind of a slap to the face of scientific method. For one, the south pole has proven stable so “the poles” are not melting, the north pole is and it is cooling the gulf stream which regulates most of the world’s temperatures. Here in the north east we’re experiencing a record cold summer. Yes methane is a greenhouse gas but it is also let off by any and all living (and dead) things and there are pockets of it everywhere. Heating temperatures are not the ONLY way it could be released. If you’re going to write about sciency stuff, I suggest writing in a sciency way. I don’t want to be one of those guys that tries to disprove global warming. For one I’m a girl, not a guy, and for two (three and four) I’m not a republican, a Christian, or an idiot. Also, there’s only a solid 80 years of wholly accurate data of the weather patterns of this bajillion year old planet that, believe it or not, had a couple Ice Ages and weather catastrophes before factories and cars existed. JS

      • Couple of things I wanted to mention after reading your link. First,  it states that the earth has undergone rapid climate change in the past, sometimes in less than a hundred years. Second, it says that evidence of past temperatures is found through analysis of ice core samples.  This might give an accurate representation of atmospheric gas levels,  but not temperature. There may be proof of global warming,  but this article is not it. Before people get immature about my comments,  I am not being mean or rude.  I am a skeptic, so convince me. 

    • What does the temperature in the American Northeast have to do with temperature in Siberia? Europe and Siberia have been experiencing record high temperatures consistently for the last decade at least. While one corner of North America was freezing last winter, most of the rest of us were having one of the warmest winters on record. 
      In any case for the purposes of this story what matters are the temperatures in that area of Siberia which are high enough to impact the permafrost.

      • The gulf stream runs from near cuba, to just off of England. It is a convection current that cools the hot southern water by transporting it to the cooler northern waters. this is the rason that england, and most of northern europe are temperate, while other areas at that latitude are fridged. The big concern about global warming is that the water being cooled by the north polarice cap melting due to a temp spike of just a few degrees. this would in turn cause all sorts of nasty weather phenomina. to keep this short however, europe in general, England specifically, warming is not one of those effects. they would cool drastically, while the temperate zones becamemore tropical.

  • Who cares … it is in Russian.. for all we Know it was Man-Bear-Pig.. plus Global Warming is an excuse for everything these days… would it be so bad to be able to rock shorts year round… plus Snow only really matters in Canada and at Ski Resorts.. the last thing we need is Atlanta to freeze over again.. it may delay TWD .

  • Anyone seen the silver surfer?  P.S.  near the “north pole.”  The South Pole has been cooling for 35 years now with a drastic increase in ice sheets.

    • Note, this has been an increase in SEA ICE which has since been shown to be a symptom of the land ice diluting the surrounding waters making it more susceptible to freeze. So the increase in sea ice is another sign demonstrating global warming not debunking it. There is no rational amount of data debunking it.

        • Sort out the science, John. Or have you never had ice cream? Salt level changes the freezing temperature. If you have more fresh water melting off the warming land mass, then the nearby sea water decreases in salinity. Therefore you get an increase in sea ice as a direct result of a decrease in land ice. So, YES, global warming is making more sea ice in that particular area.

  • I get that global warming may be bad for a large portion of humanity,  but is it really bad for the earth?  The earth earth is not a constant, immobile thing.  It moves and changes. Things die and new thing grow. What do we really know?