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The small lakes that dot Russia's Yamal Peninsula were likely formed in the same was as the two strange holes. (Google)

That Weird Siberian Hole Has a Twin

Melting permafrost can change the land in really strange—and sometimes dangerous—ways

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The discovery last week of a weird hole in northern Siberia—a big, sheer pit in the Yamal Peninsula, a place whose name translates to the "end of the earth"—was a true spark for the imagination.

Among the more interesting theories pitched for the hole's origin, says Gizmodo were: "Meteors, giant worm from hell coming out of its lair, and drilling UFOs." A second strange pit discovered just 18 miles away, then, should come to the conspiracy theorists' delight. 

The true cause of the hole is not so strange, and not nearly so dangerous as hell beasts and hostile aliens. Yet the pits are a sign of the things to come, as human activity and natural forces change the face of the Earth—sometimes right under our feet. 

We can blame the weird pits on melting permafrost, and on the fact that the ground in the Yamal Peninsula is packed with natural gas says Marina Liebman, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Earth Cryosphere Institute, in an interview with the New York Times' Andrew Revkin

In the Siberian Times, Anna Kurchatova from the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre explains how it works:

Global warming, causing an 'alarming' melt in the under soil ice, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne bottle cork.

The ground in Siberia is frozen solid. The end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago and the more recent effects of anthropogenic warming mean that some of that permafrost is thawing out

"It’s as if the Earth is celebrating," quips Slate. "Soon, no more humans!"

Nature seems to be doing a lot of this "no more humans" dancing. In April, National Geographic reported that melting permafrost is making "drunken trees" in Alaska:

"Because permafrost melts, it causes a lot of erosion," says James, who lives in Arctic Village, a small Native American village in northeastern Alaska. "A lot of trees can't stand up straight. If the erosion gets worse, everything goes with it."

Its not all cute antics. Permafrost melting also wrecks havoc to infrastructure—it "cracks pavement, breaks pipelines, and opens holes," says National Geographic—and reportedly even causes slumps in the ground large enough to swallow a house. (In a way, climate change is kind of like a slow moving hell beast. But just think how easy it would be to get everyone on board with "defeat the hell beast!" research.)

In Canada, ClimateWire explains, melting permafrost is putting ponds of oil-sands mining waste at risk of seepage. It's also quickly releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mimicking the effect of industrial pollution. 

We're in for more of this leaky, hole-y, drunken world. Per National Geographic: "Some climate models have predicted that most permafrost could melt by the end of the century."

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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