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Siberian hole mystery: Scientists think they know the cause, and it's bad news

Scientists now believe they know exactly what caused the holes found in the Siberian permafrost in July. However, if their theory holds up, the discovery doesn't bode well for the planet.

The Washington Post reported Aug. 5 that the ultimate culprit for the formation of holes in Siberia is the warming of the permafrost that has been effected in the past few years due to global warming. For the Siberian permafrost, the last couple years have seen higher temperatures than normal. And it is those higher temperatures that scientists believe set off the causative events that created the Siberian craters that began making news in July.

In an article in Nature, the prevailing theory was revealed to be the release of pressurized methane gas. The “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

The methane gas theory is not a far cry from other theories that suggested that the craters in Russia's far north were caused by various geological forces at work. One theory held that earth-covered ice -- called a "pingo" -- could have melted in the past few years and left such a hole. Another theory suggested that water, salt, and gas combined into a volatile mix, causing an underground explosion. However, the latter theory wasn't supported by the evidence on the ground at the first hole, which was a massive opening in the ground in the Yamal Peninsula. When scientists arrived to make observations and take samples, they found no trace of burning or anything indicative of an explosion. But with earth heaped around the edges of the hole, scientists knew that whatever was underground had been expelled in some manner.

That expulsion seems to have been caused by methane.

The problem is: Scientists believe that the massive amounts of methane gas trapped in the permafrost in Siberia could make the region somewhat unstable and prone to violent expulsions that could have an impact on the gas fields operating in the vicinity. The largest natural gas extracting facilities in Russia are located just 20 miles from the giant hole.

But the holes aren't relegated to just Yamal (a name that translates to "End of the World" in the native tongue). Two others have been found, a second on the Yamal Peninsula and a third in neighboring Krasnoyarsk on the Taymyr Peninsula.

So now experts are looking for ways to find a safe release for the methane.

Still, as Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia, and who was one of the first scientists on site at the Siberian crater, told Nature, the initial findings and theories are preliminary. More tests need to be conducted. One such is trying to discover just how much methane gas is trapped in the air inside the walls of the crater.

“Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” the researcher said. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running; it’s rather spooky.”

And even if the source of the craters is ultimately found to be due to the sudden expansion of methane beneath the permafrost and experts find a way to safely bleed it from the warming terrain, there could be another problem. Methane is a contributor to the gases that are producing a more intense greenhouse effect and depleting the ozone layer, which is an atmospheric layer that protects life on the planet from harsh ultraviolet radiation.