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Demystifying the giant 'End of the World' hole in Siberia: So what is it?

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Ever since a helicopter took photos of a massive hole in the ground in Siberia's Yamal Peninsula that somehow had gone unnoticed -- hence the headlines screaming "suddenly appears" all around the world and on the Internet -- there has been plenty of speculation, some by actual scientists, about what had caused the big hole in the permafrost. And with scientists and researchers arriving last week, the world waited as samples were taken, readings made, and data was collected. So what did they find? What exactly is the hole? Or, perhaps if it is simply a hole in the ground, what caused it to be?

The New York Times reported July 19 that scientists at the scene of the yawning hole would soon be able to provide a more "informed opinion" on the nature of the massive opening than, say, the posters on chat forums and conspiracy theory websites, those who quickly jump to the idea that such phenomena are caused by government experiments gone wrong, cosmic death rays, or UFOs landing or bursting from their underground lair (per Viral Global News). A few of the more serious speculations -- like a meteorite impact -- already had been ruled out by experts simply by viewing the first photos of the Siberian crater.

One of the scientists on site, Andrey Plekhanov, Senior Researcher at the State Scientific Centre of Arctic Research, wanted it made clear: There was no explosion, a position theorized by several scientists and various experts, their theory extrapolated primarily from the fact that the Siberian hole was only twenty miles from the gas field of Bovanenkovo. The Yamal Peninsula itself sits atop one of the largest gas reservoirs in the world, so it was only natural that some would quickly see a connection between a massive crater in the ground and an explosion of gas.

No, the hole in the Siberian permafrost was the result of a large ejection, Plekhanov said. “For now we can say for sure that under the influence of internal processes there was an ejection in the permafrost," he asserted. "I want to stress that it was not an explosion, but an ejection, so there was no heat released as it happened.”

Plekhanov instists there is "nothing mysterious" about the hole, although he does admit, as reported by the Siberian Times, "I've never seen anything like this, even though I have been to Yamal many times."

So what does he think it is?

He is not certain, but he has an idea: "I also want to recall a theory that our scientists worked on in the 1980s - it has been left and then forgotten for a number of years. The theory was that the number of Yamal lakes formed because of exactly such natural process happening in the permafrost. Such kind of processes were taking place about 8,000 years ago. Perhaps they are repeating nowadays. If this theory is confirmed, we can say that we have witnessed a unique natural process that formed the unusual landscape of Yamal peninsula."

Still, the massive hole in Yamal, a name that translates to "End of the World," looks very much like sinkholes that have been popping up (dropping out?) all over the world -- like that massive hole that suddenly appeared in Guatemala City in 2010. But if the hole in Siberia was formed from an ejection, that would rule out the "sink" in sinkhole...

Plekanov noted that signatures of the ejection were not consisted with an explosion, there being no sign of burn marks. This would indicate that the theory proposed by Anna Kurchatova from the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre, that the crater was formed by a mixture of water, salt and gas which ignited in an underground explosion. Gas, she explained, accumulated in the ice could have mixed with sand beneath the surface, then mixed with salt, resulting in a volatile mix. This, she noted, could have been caused by global warming, which could have melted the under-soil ice, releasing gas and causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne bottle cork.

But there is one remaining offered prior to Plekhanov and the other researchers flying out to gather samples from the crater, which was actually a bit smaller than had been first thought. Instead of a 262-foot hole, the aperture did not measure even 200 feet across. And what theory was that?

It could be a "pingo."

Dr. Chris Fogwill of the University of New South Wales told the Sydney Sunday Morning Herald that a pingo was a large chunk of ice that is located underground. When it melts, it could create a hole in the ground.

"Certainly from the images I’ve seen it looks like a periglacial feature, perhaps a collapsed pingo," Fogwill said. "This is obviously a very extreme version of that, and if there’s been any interaction with the gas in the area, that is a question that could only be answered by going there."

So, again, what is it? As Plekhanov noted, it appears to be a "unique natural process." But the researchers now have their samples and some data to work with. Perhaps in due course the scientific method will yield some answers.

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