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ARCTIC: Scientists Point to a Methane Eruption as Cause of Siberian Hole Mystery

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It was aliens, or maybe a meteorite or a gas explosion.

Those were some of the initial explanations for why three sinkhole-like craters gaped open in the Siberian permafrost, spawning a wave of Internet videos and frightening headlines about catastrophic releases of methane from a "dragon breath" of the Earth. Now, some scientists who have visited the holes, or have just monitored them via media reports, say there may -- with an emphasis on may -- be a warming component to their formation.

Others, however, say they may be the result of a natural process, at least in part. The bottom line is that no one knows the definitive cause of the massive craters turning Siberian permafrost into a Swiss Cheese slice.

"I have an opinion, but no proof," said Marina Leibman, a scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a brief email interview this week. In mid-July, Leibman led a team of scientists to the site of one of the holes that was approximately 30 meters in diameter and about 70 meters deep and was located about 30 kilometers from the Bovanenkovo gas field.

The holes appeared in the Yamal Peninsula, a reindeer-herding area holding the country's largest natural gas reserves.

In Leibman's view, an unusually warm summer in the Yamal region in 2012 caused extensive permafrost melt, which unleashed methane gas trapped in the ice and sediment. That expanding gas presence unleashed by melt in turn caused the permafrost to pop up like a cork, spraying debris in a visible ring around the created hole, she explained. The presence of the debris likely couldn't have happened without such a popping action, she said.

It was not an explosion, but more of an eruption that sprayed debris far from the hole itself. The visited chasm most likely formed in 2013, according to Leibman. The holes have to be relatively recent, because of vegetation patterns, further indicating that the warm summer of 2012 may have played a role, she said.         
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