Where did the mysterious craters in Siberia come from?  New explanation

The craters, first observed in 2012, appear in desolate Siberian permafrost and have fascinated scientists for years. They can be quite large, reaching over 48 meters deep and 16 meters wide. Pieces of rubble were blown hundreds of metres. Some reports indicate that explosions can be heard at a distance of up to 100 kilometers.

Scientists now suggest that hot natural gas emerging from underground sediments may be behind the explosion. These findings may explain why craters only appear in certain areas of Siberia.

“The region is known for its vast underground natural gas reserves,” study lead author Helgi Hellevang, a professor of environmental geology at the University of Oslo in Norway, told Business Insider.

When climate change or warming of the atmosphere weakens one portion of permafrost, such outbreaks occur. This only happens in Siberia – He explains.

An explosion of gas coming from the deep layers of the Earth's crust causes a hole in the Earth

Hole in Siberia


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Itar-Tass / Reuters / Forum / Polish Photographers Agency Forum

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Permafrost traps many organic materials. As temperatures rise, it melts, allowing the waste to decompose, and this process releases methane gas.

Scientists have proposed a natural explanation for this phenomenon, claiming that methane gas released from permafrost is responsible for the formation of craters.

This is not an irrational point of view. It is believed that this is a process that leads to the formation of so-called thermokarsts, that is, the appearance of lakes in areas where permafrost melts. These lakes are filled with methane and may erupt.

Thermokarst is filled with methane gas that flows to the surface

Thermokarst is filled with methane gas that flows to the surface


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NASA/Sophie Betts

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However, this does not explain why the mysterious craters exist. Only eight have been identified so far, and all of them are in a very specific area: the Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas in Western Siberia in northern Russia.

In contrast, burst lakes can be observed in many different regions where permafrost occurs, including Canada.

Helge Hellevang and his colleagues suggest another mechanism is at play: hot natural gas, seeping through some kind of geological fault, accumulates beneath the frozen layer of soil and heats the permafrost from below.

Hot gas streams melt the permafrost from below, weakening it and making it more vulnerable to collapse.

The diagram from the study explains the process by which potholes can be formed.  Natural gas accumulating above the sedimentary layer is shown in purple

The diagram from the study explains the process by which potholes can be formed. Natural gas accumulating above the sedimentary layer is shown in purple


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Helge Hellevang et al., 2023, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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At the same time, rising temperatures cause the top layer of permafrost to melt. This creates ideal conditions for a sudden release of gas, causing either an explosion or a “mechanical collapse” caused by gas pressure.

Hellevang and his colleagues suggest that this is how the crater forms.

This region is rich in natural gas deposits, which is consistent with Hellevang and colleagues' theory.

It is one of the largest oil regions in the world – He said.

According to a model developed by scientists, such craters could have formed and disappeared when water and nearby soil filled the gap.

“It's a very large area, so we don't really know the true number,” he said.

– If you look at a satellite image of the Yamal Peninsula, you will see thousands of these circular depressions that look like logs. Most or all of them may be thermal vents, but they are also likely to have formed previously.

The hypothesis was posted on the EarthArXiv online server last month. The article has not yet been peer-reviewed.

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View of a crater on the Yamal Peninsula in northern Siberia

View of a crater on the Yamal Peninsula in northern Siberia


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AFP/East News/East News

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Lauren Schurmier, an earth scientist at the University of Hawaii who studies the topic, told New Scientist that although the idea has merit, more evidence is needed to prove that gas reserves are what are accumulating beneath the permafrost.

However, if the hypothesis turns out to be correct, it could pose a problem for some climate models.

— Natural gas is full of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. This might mean that The nozzles act as huge chimneys through which harmful chemicals can suddenly be released into the atmosphere – Thomas Birchall, a scientist at the Svalbard University Center in Norway, told New Scientist. —If accumulations of this type were to explode, a lot of methane would be released in a very short time.

However, Helgi Hellenwang remains cautious in his judgments. If this phenomenon occurs only in this very limited area, its global impact may turn out to be minimal. There is likely a large amount of methane stored in underground reserves, but it is still unclear how much might escape.

I think what we need to do is first understand how much methane comes out of these types of systems naturally, and then compare it to the amount of methane that's actually in the permafrost in organic matter. – Hellenfang comments.

— Then we can get more realistic projections about how much gas might be released due to atmospheric warming or climate change.

The above text is a translation from American edition of Insidercompletely prepared by the local editorial office.

Translated by: Dorota Salos

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