Siberian sinkholes – a bang or whimper?

Aliens used ray-guns to blast giant holes in Siberia! Say what?

This was one theory when giant craters were found in the Siberian permafrost in the northern summer of 2014. Stray missiles, meteors and explosions caused by leaks from nearby gas fields were also blamed. In fact, the craters – reportedly 30 to 70 metres across, and with striated edges reminiscent of rifling grooves – looked like immense bullet holes. How were they discovered?

First by helicopter pilots and then by reindeer herders. And then on YouTube. Over a number of days in July 2014, a number of competing posts titled “THE GIANT HOLE IN THE GROUND IN RUSSIA!!!” and more modestly “Giant hole in Siberia” and “Mystery of Siberian crater deepens” were uploaded by people named Strange Mysteries, UFOs on Tiamat, and Innovative Rays. Soon after scientists got involved. Despite the hype, was this just another boring sinkhole event?

To forestall public panic that Martians had unleashed their death rays, the catch-all explanation of “sinkhole” was evoked. But a sinkhole is made when a weakly supported surface layer collapses – as in poorly made roads and badly surveyed residential areas. But the Siberian craters were more than surface events. They are deep. When one group of scientists tried to measure the depth of a crater, they ran out of rope. One has since been measured at more than 60 metres using echo-technology. Also, sinkholes feature much broken up collapsed material. Most of what existed prior to being cratered was blown outward – or had simply vanished. Blown outward? Like an explosion?

Sort of. Perhaps more of a sudden rushing-out … as people sometimes experience when they’ve been eating bean soup. According to Nature, tests conducted by the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia, found high concentrations of methane gas in one of the craters. Air ordinarily contains only 0.000179 per cent of methane; air toward the bottom of the crater was nearly 10 per cent methane. Methane is explosive at concentrations of between 5 and 15 per cent. But, as a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, it’s also politically explosive. So this is a climate change thing?

Looks like it. The Siberian summers of 2012 and 2013 were unusually hot – an average of 5 degrees hotter. Meanwhile, underground temperatures have risen steadily by two degrees in the past 15 years. This led scientists to believe the summer heat spike had caused a profound melting of the permafrost. Without a solid layer of ice holding it back, buried banks of methane gas leaked or even blew out. That theory has since been modified. The gas build up, in some of these craters, is thought to have occurred in small hills called pingos. Doesn’t Pingu live in the southern hemisphere, like Antarctica?

Pingu is an animated penguin who plays fish tennis and cooks pancakes. A pingo, also called a hydrolaccolith, is a big mound of ice covered by earth-covered ice. It looks like a small hill and can reach up to 70 metres in height and up to 600 metres in diameter. They are formed when winter ice piles up. In summer they thaw, collapse and form lakes.

Given they have an in-built fragility, it’s thought that methane from deep underground was released during the pingo’s crash phase, causing an eruption. Two of the craters have since formed gigantic lakes. Since then, pingo-like formations have been found embedded within the shallow continental shelf of the South Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. It looks like these mounds are formed by a sudden upsurge of methane and are prone to blowing out down the track. So the world is going to end with a bang and not a dehydrated over-heated whimper?

Dunno. Australian scientists says it would take 20 million pingo eruptions to generate a methane apocalypse. So far there have been several dozen at most. Moscow scientist Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky says the eruptions are a danger to the region and require further investigation. So, can we be sure aliens aren’t involved?

According to, a team of researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences found an “unidentified object resembling a space capsule” at the bottom of one of the craters. Shortly thereafter, the team’s satellite telephone link “disconnected and they have not been heard from since”. So there’s that.

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