In the wilds of Siberia, a group of reindeer herders guide their animals across the bleak terrain. Then, without warning, a vast hole opens up in the ground beneath their feet. And astonishingly, the men must rely on their strength – and pure luck – to prevent themselves from suffering a terrible fate.
A frightening scenario indeed – and yet it’s not the first time that a mysterious crater has suddenly appeared in this unforgiving part of the world. Incredibly, the herders had stumbled upon the third such hole to emerge in recent years – and scientists are baffled.
The experts’ attention was first drawn to Siberia – the remote Russian region that covers much of northern Asia – in July 2014. A helicopter pilot flying near the Bovanenkovo gas field on the Yamal Peninsula had spotted something unusual down below.
As the pilot and his crew flew over the peninsula, they saw that the familiar landscape had been broken up by something totally unexpected. Indeed, they were now looking at a large crater, but what could have possibly caused it?
Well, we’ll get to that soon. In the meantime, The Siberian Times website published photographs of this crater taken from the air. And soon the story was being shared around the world. Indeed, estimates placed the size of the hole at around 100 feet across.
So scientists were soon flocking to the area to study this bizarre geological phenomenon. However, a team from the State Scientific Centre of Arctic Research was the first to arrive. And interestingly, they initially found that a water feature lay beneath.
Yes, researchers discovered that the crater descended for approximately 55 feet down to an almost-frozen lake. What’s more, it was being topped up by water melting from the crater’s walls. But that’s not all.
No, for they also concluded that the crater was a “natural phenomenon.” But senior researcher Andrey Plekhanov said that further research was needed to determine its exact cause. However, he told the Siberian Times, “If it was a man-made disaster linked by gas pumping, it would have happened closer to the gas fields.”
At the time, though, melting ice in the region made the crater a dangerous place to explore. And so, researchers were forced to wait until the winter months, when the cold weather would create a more stable environment. So four months later, in November 2014, scientists returned to the Yamal Peninsula.
This time, the researchers came from the Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration. With director Vladimir Pushkarev in the lead, the team rappelled down the slick, icy sides of the crater. And when they reached the bottom, they were able to take a closer look at the mysterious sunken lake.
Deep in the crater, the temperature hovered around 12°F. But despite the freezing conditions, the researchers got to work. And according to their measurements, the lake at the bottom of the depression was at least 34 feet in depth. However, it may have stretched even further beneath the tundra.
Elsewhere, the team recorded more data and measurements from the bottom of the crater. And by using radio waves, they attempted to build up a clearer picture of their surroundings. Meanwhile, they utilized probes to gather information about the ice as well as the air and gases present in the depression.
Back on the surface, the crater continued to draw more and more media attention. And as its fame grew, various theories relating to its mysterious presence began to emerge. Could, for instance, global warming be to blame? Or was it something else?
According to an article published by the BBC in 2017, the craters are all to do with changes in Siberia’s permafrost. Apparently, it isn’t just the surface of the region that is frequently coated in a layer of snow and ice. For beneath the ground, there are also vast reserves of frozen water – some dating as far back as the Ice Age.
Interestingly, there are two types of permafrost found around the world. While one consists of ancient glaciers buried beneath the tundra for thousands of years, the other lies closer to the surface. In fact, these deposits form beneath an upper layer of sediment or soil. And furthermore, they may have been frozen for as little as two years.
So, on the Yamal Peninsula, this mysterious crater is surrounded by the second type of permafrost. And experts believe that warmer ground temperatures in Siberia may be affecting these frozen reserves. Apparently, warm air heats up the ground, causing the soil layer above the permafrost itself to get warmer. This in turn warms the permafrost, causing it to melt. And once this process starts, it can be difficult to stop.
In fact, when the permafrost itself begins to melt, more ice is exposed to warm temperatures. And in this manner, the process escalates. But while this is worrying for the landscape of Siberia, what does it have to do with the crater? Well, apparently, this thaw also releases excess methane into the atmosphere.
Once released, experts believe, this methane can become trapped under sheets of ice. And according to Hans Wolfgang-Hubberton, a geochemist at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, this could explain the hole in the Yamal Peninsula. “Gas pressure increased until it was high enough to push away the overlaying layers in a powerful injection, forming the crater,” he told Nature in 2014.
But if this is the explanation behind the crater, what is it that is causing Siberia to heat up? According to some, the answer is simple. Reportedly, the Yamal Peninsula experienced two unusually warm summers during 2012 and 2013. So might these unusual stretches of warmth have raised temperatures to the point where the permafrost began to melt?
If certain experts are to be believed, this seems unlikely. In fact, some have pointed to longer term climate change as the factor that could have caused such a significant thaw. And even though permafrost has melted in the past due to natural causes, now things are happening at an alarming rate.
“What is definitely unprecedented is the rate of warming,” Dr. Gideon Henderson, a professor at the University of Oxford, told CNBC in 2017. “The warming that happened 130,000 years ago happened over thousands of years… What we see happening now is warming over decades or a century.”
Now, if the crater was caused by methane, holes in the landscape may be the least of our worries. In fact, experts believe that the flammable gas could cause as much as 86 times more global warming than carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, the melting permafrost is already affecting transport infrastructure in the region.
“People in permafrost regions rely on frozen ground for their infrastructure,” Dr. Henderson continued. “As the ground melts, the railway collapses, the roads fall apart, the buildings sink into the ground… It’s happening already.” Moreover, it may be only a matter of time before exploding methane causes a fatal accident, too.
Locally, however, there is another explanation for how the crater formed. Apparently, it began as a ravine back in the 1960s, when the trees were removed from a swathe of land. And as a side effect of this deforestation, the permafrost was left vulnerable to melting as the temperatures rose.
However, as always, alternative theories have been put forward to explain the crater’s sudden appearance. For instance, speculation online has suggested everything from off-course missiles to meteor strikes as potential causes. But some ideas were even more out there, as we’ll now find out about.
There were, for example, whispers that extra-terrestrial forces had somehow been involved in the crater’s creation. Now, these were perhaps sparked by rumors that locals had seen a huge flash around the time it was discovered.
Later on, the mystery deepened with a further “flash” sighting near a different crater. Firstly, reindeer herders in rural Siberia almost fell into two previously undiscovered craters on separate occasions. The first, although also located on the Yamal Peninsula, was situated in the Taz district, measuring around 50 feet across.
Speaking to The Siberian Times in 2014, government official Mikhail Lapsui said locals believed the Taz crater was formed in September 2013. “Observers give several versions,” he explained. “According to the first, initially at the place [there] was smoking, and then there was a bright flash. In the second version, a celestial body fell there.”
Meanwhile, the second crater was discovered on the Taymyr Peninsula, some way east of Yamal. And it featured an almost impossibly well-formed funnel and is thought to be around 200 to 300 feet deep. Scientist Marina Leibman from the Earth Cryosphere Institute told the URA.RU website, “Undoubtedly, we need to study all such formations. It is necessary to be able to predict their occurrence. Each new funnel provides additional information for scientists.”
Furthermore, in 2015 another expedition to the first Yamal Peninsula crater appeared to yield some clues. In fact, Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky from the Russian Academy of Science, believes he has got to the bottom of the mystery. And according to him, something called pingos are to blame.
Also known as a hydrolaccolith, a pingo is a mass of buried ice that can form wherever permafrost exists. Amazingly, these frozen masses can grow up to 2,000 feet across. What’s more, they’re frequently found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland,Scandinavia – as well as the frozen Siberian tundra.
According to Bogoyavlensky, these blocks of ice could be the secret behind the mysterious depressions across Siberia. Specifically, he believes that natural gases reacted with the deposits in a volatile way. And in the resulting explosion, the craters were formed.
However, researchers like Bogoyavlensky may not have much longer to develop their theories. In fact, the professor observed that the crater was filling up with water at an alarming rate.
“I think that next year it will be full of water and it will turn completely into a lake,” he told The Siberian Times in 2015. “In ten to 20 years it will be difficult to say what happened here.”
As the years have passed, Siberia’s craters appear to have grown more, rather than less, mysterious. And over time, the phenomenon studied by Plekhanov, Pushkarev and Bogoyavlensky has developed something of a sinister reputation. In fact, in certain circles, the deep depressions are regarded as a gateway to hell itself.
For example, regarding the largest crater in Siberia, called the Batagaika, it’s been reported that locals make a habit of avoiding it. Apparently, many in Siberia believe that the world is split into three realms, including the upper and under worlds. And, seeing the hole as symbolic of the latter, they tend to give it a wide berth.
Perhaps most strangely of all, there are reports of locals hearing odd noises emitting from the depths of the crater. However, it is unlikely that the monsters and demons that dwell in the underworld are to blame. Instead, some have suggested that the sounds are likely caused by loose soil falling inside the hole.
Furthermore, in February 2017, a team of researchers released the results of their latest study into the Batagaika. And according to their measurements, it has grown even bigger. Now, it stretches over half a mile in length and reaches depths of almost 300 feet beneath the frozen tundra.
In fact, according to satellite images from the region, the crater is growing in size by around 33 feet every year. But while this expanding cavern strikes fear in the hearts of locals, researchers have been putting it to surprisingly good use. Apparently, the depression offers a unique insight into some 200,000 years of history in the Siberian region.
Yes, scientists hope to learn more about how climate change has affected the Siberian landscape over the years. In fact, Batagaika has allowed them to glimpse changes in the local geology stretching all the way back to the Ice Age. And with this data, they hope to explore how global warming might affect the modern world.
Today, most experts appear to agree that the mysterious – and somewhat terrifying – craters beneath Siberia are a natural phenomenon. However, scientific research has not entirely silenced everyone, and some observers still believe in a more otherworldly explanation. In fact, it seems that there will always be those who suspect something altogether more sinister is at work.