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Mysterious Craters-When Weather Plays a Crude Joke

August 1, 2014

Credit: Courtesy: Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor
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When does exploring a mystery end up sounding like a crude joke? Scientists exploring a mysterious crater discovered that it was caused by a weather-related gas attack!

The mysterious crater at “the end of the world” Courtesy: Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor

It was a cool mystery. A huge crater in Russia’s remote Yamal Peninsula, not showing signs of being a meteor strike, measured at least 150 feet deep and more than 210 feet across. The area where it was found translates as "the end of the world". It was obviously the result of some explosion and relatively new, only two years old. Then two smaller craters were found nearby.

What was causing these giant explosions in the middle of nowhere?

A respected team of Russian scientists, led by Andrei Plekhanov, of the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia, explored the mystery and published their report. Whoops – it may have been caused by a gas attack due to warming Arctic temperatures!

The craters may have formed due to melting permafrost. SOURCE: USGS

The area has a number of sinkholes. Permafrost, the frozen layer of soil in the Arctic, has been melting. This happens every summer, but in 2012 temperatures got especially hot. The water released from the frozen soil formed an icy slush. Sometimes when the permafrost heaves and forms a mound, the melting of the ice causes the mound to collapse into a round sinkhole. The areas near the craters have numerous sinkholes.

However, when sinkholes form, the debris collapses inward. These three craters exploded outward—so they aren’t sinkholes.

The craters are not meteor craters or sinkholes (like this sinkhole in Missouri). SOURCE: USGS

The Russian scientists think the explosions were caused by bursts of methane gas. The area around the craters has a lot of underground gas that occasionally leaks into the air. (This is not research for those with delicate noses!) They think the permafrost may have kept the methane from leaking, causing a huge gas buildup. In the unusual heat of 2012, the permafrost may have melted and the gas escaped—BOOM!

To back this theory up, they have explored the bottoms of the craters and found unusually high amounts of methane, more than 9000 times more than usual.

So the mysterious craters may have been caused when the earth had a gas attack. Whoops—Pardon me!

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Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.

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