Search for the Source of Siberian Sinkholes

The following is a article posted July 30 by staff writer Tanya Lewis with the title “Odd Cause of Gaping Siberian Holes Possibly Found”:

A trio of mysterious gaping holes in northern Siberia has spawned many theories about the craters’ origin, but scientists have suggested some concrete explanations. In mid-July, reindeer herders stumbled across a crater that was approximately 260 feet (80 meters) wide, on the Yamal Peninsula, whose name means “end of the world,” The Siberian Times reported. Since then, two new chasms — a 50-foot (15 m) crater in the Taz district and a 200- to 330-foot (60 to 100 m) crater in the Taymyr Peninsula — have also been reported. Neither aliens nor meteorites caused the strange cavities, as some had speculated, but the true explanation could be exciting nonetheless. Russian scientists have launched an investigation to find out more.

Helicopter video footage of the first hole shows it is surrounded by a mound of loose dirt that appears to have been thrown out of the hole. “My personal opinion is it’s some type of sinkhole,” said Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist who studies permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Sinkholes are pits in the ground formed when water fails to drain away. The water likely came from melting permafrost or ice, said Romanovsky, who has spoken with the Russian scientists investigating the site. But whereas most sinkholes suck collapsed material inside, “this one actually erupted outside,” he told Live Science. “It’s not even in the [scientific] literature. It’s pretty new what we’re dealing with,” he added.

Early on, polar scientist Chris Fogwill of the University of New South Wales, in Australia, suggested the first hole was created by the collapse of a pingo, a large, earth-covered mound of ice that usually forms in Arctic and subarctic regions. Kenji Yoshikawa, an environmental scientist also at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he also thinks that a drained, collapsed pingo pond is the most likely explanation for the Yamal Peninsula pit. In Alaska, similar pingos exist in the Northern Seward Peninsula and near the city of Nuiqsut.

But Romanovsky said the hole doesn’t look like a typical collapsed pingo; such features usually form from larger mounds that slowly cave in over a period of decades, with all the material falling inside. From the photo of the Yamal crater, “it’s obvious that some material was ejected from the hole,” Romanovsky said. His Russian colleagues who visited the site told him the dirt was piled more than 3 feet (1 m) high around the hole’s edges.

The crater’s formation probably began in a similar way to that of a sinkhole, where water (in this case, melted ice or permafrost) collects in an underground cavity, Romanovsky said. But instead of the roof of the cavity collapsing, something different occurred. Pressure built up, possibly from natural gas (methane), eventually spewing out a slurry of dirt as the ground sunk away. Anna Kurchatova, a scientist at the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Center in Russia, made a similar observation to The Siberian Times.

The photo of the crater rim shows some vegetation that does not appear freshly grown, which suggests the hole may be several years old, Yoshikawa said. Romanovsky said it might be more recent, but investigators will need to look at archived high-resolution satellite images to pin down exactly when the crater appeared. And many other questions remain: If a sinkhole erupted material, why is the hole’s border so round and even? Would there be enough gas to fuel such an eruption, and where did such gas come from?

This part of Siberia contains deep gas fields, and it also contains a lot of small lakes, which formed between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago when the climate was warmer, Romanovsky said. Perhaps these odd holes developed in the same way that sinkholes did, but later expanded. Domes of natural gas also exist in the United States, located east ofthe Sagavanirktok River in Alaska’s North Slope Borough. The development of permafrost sinkholes could be one indication of global warming, Romanovsky. “If so, we will probably see this happen more often now.”

Image 1 for article titled "Search for the Source of Siberian Sinkholes"
Explanations for the origin of the three enormous holes have included everything from meteorites, aliens, and fracking to secret tests of a new tunnel-boring device, a man-made prank, and an explosive cocktail of methane or shale gas suddenly exploding. This photo is of the big crater near Bovanenkovo gas field. Photo credit: Andrey Naumenko, ‘Yamal-Region’

Image 2 for article titled "Search for the Source of Siberian Sinkholes"
This new crater in the Taz district, near the village of Antipayuta, has a diameter of about 15 metres. Photo credit: Google maps, press service of the Governor YaNAO

Image 3 for article titled "Search for the Source of Siberian Sinkholes"
The third crater and hole is in the Taymyr Peninsula, to the east of Yamal, in Kransoyark region. It was accidentally discovered by local herders, inhabitants of the northern village of Nosok. The funnel is a perfectly formed cone, say locals who are mystified at how it was formed. Its depth is estimated at between 60 and 100 metres and its diameter – more than four metres. The herders almost fell into the hole which lies on a pasturing route. They took pictures of the hole which were sent to scientists at the Norilsk Taimyr Explorers’ Club. Experts – geologists, ecologists, and historians – have not come to a consensus about the origin of the funnel, say reports in the region. Photo credit: Google maps, Local residents

Image 4 for article titled "Search for the Source of Siberian Sinkholes"
Locations of the three holes (