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