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Last summer, a Russian TV crew traveling with scientists and local officials made a startling discovery: yet another large, mysterious crater on a peninsula in northwest Siberia. Counting this crater, there are now 17 documented craters in the area.

What’s mysterious about the craters is that they all have appeared after 2013.

The first crater, discovered in 2014, is 66 feet wide and up to 171 feet deep. Although the craters differ in size, they all are very large, leading scientists to believe they result from large methane gas explosions.

Until now, scientists weren’t sure what was causing the explosions -- leaving the craters behind. New research shows the explosions are a result of climate change and subsequent Arctic warming.

Why The Explosions Occur

Permafrost, ground that typically remains frozen all year, is a large reservoir of methane. Once enough methane builds up in a pocket, it eventually leads to a large explosion.

“Mud and ice above the gas-filled pocket, along with much of the material in the unfrozen section itself, is flung outwards up to 980 feet away,” a BBC article reports. “The force is so great that blocks of earth up to 3 feet across are thrown outwards, leaving a crater with a raised parapet, a wide mouth, and a narrower cylindrical hole -- thought to be the unfrozen pocket -- left behind.”

While the explosions occur in northern Siberia, that doesn’t mean there are no witnesses. Local reindeer herders report that they saw flames and smoke after one crater explosion, and nearby villagers said the gas burned for more than an hour with flames approximately 15 feet high, the BBC article said.

A mysterious crater in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia.

Pieces Of The Puzzle

When Russian scientists discovered the latest crater, known as C17, last summer, they quickly used drone photography, 3D modeling, and artificial intelligence to study it.

That’s an important differentiation. The craters have all occurred on the Yamal Peninsula and Gydan Peninsula of Siberia, so scientists only discover them when traveling by plane or helicopter. That means by the time scientists discover a crater, it isn’t the result of a recent explosion.

“The new crater is uniquely well preserved, as surface water hadn’t yet accumulated in the crater when we surveyed it, which allowed us to study a ‘fresh’ crater, untouched by degradation,” Evgeny Chuvilin, lead research scientist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology’s Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery in Moscow, said, according to CNN.

Chuvilin was part of the team of scientists who visited the crater last summer, conducted research, and published their findings in Geosciences journal.

Study author Igor Bogoyavlensky of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences served as the drone pilot. It was the first time a drone had been used for crater surveillance.

“Over the years, we’ve gained a lot of experience with surveillance drones, yet this ‘underground aerial survey’ of the C17 crater was the most difficult task I had ever faced -- having to lie down on the edge of a 10-story-deep crater and dangle my arms to control the drone,” Bogoyavlensky said, a article reports. “Three times we got close to losing the drone.”

The drone took about 80 images, allowing the researchers to build a 3D model of the crater that captured its complex structure.

Questions Remain

Thanks to the research and finding published in Geosciences, we now know how and why the craters are formed.

“Our results suggest unequivocally that the crater was formed endogenously, with ice melting, a heaving mound dynamically growing due to gas accumulation, and the explosion,” said Vasily Bogoyavlensky, of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and co-author of the paper.

We also know the timing is not completely random.

The summer “is the time of the year when there’s a lot of solar energy influx, which causes the snow to melt and the upper layers of the ground to heat up, and that causes changes in their properties and behavior,” Chuvilin said in the CNN article.

There is, however, one big question that remains: Where will the next explosion occur?

That question can’t be answered -- yet -- because scientists don’t have tools for detecting or mapping where the methane explosions may occur.

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