Scientists are trying to get to the bottom of those mysterious new holes in Siberia

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Marco Werman: If you've seen the pictures online - and if you haven't seen them, you really should, they're pretty eerie - if you've seen those pictures, you, like millions of others, are almost certainly wondering, "What in the world are those huge new holes in Siberia?" The discovery of the two bizarre craters in far northern Russia, near the Arctic Ocean, has kicked off a whirl of X-files-like speculation about extraterrestrial origins, but so far very few scientists have actually visited the sites. Geologist Vladimir Romanovsky at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is not among those who have seen the holes firsthand but he's been in touch with Russian colleagues who have. First of all, for those of our listeners who have not yet seen these images, what are we talking about? What do these holes in the Siberian tundra actually look like? Vladimir Romanovsky: So from the pictures, it's about maybe 20-30 meters across and maybe up to 10 meters deep and also very icy walls and some water on the bottom. But the most interesting part is the material surrounding these holes, which it looks like it was ejected from the hole and that's what really makes this kind of feature a mystery. Werman: And what does that suggest to you? That there's this kind of mound around the ring of the hole? Romanovsky: Normally I would say it would look like a big sinkhole but all of these sinkholes actually collapse inside. But this one, it seems like it's erupted. Werman: So, just to convert your measurements, we're talking a hole about 35 yards wide and 15 yards deep. Now, these craters in Siberia are, like a lot if Siberia, in a pretty remote place. Is it possible that these holes have actually been there for awhile? Romanovsky: It seems like it's pretty new because of how this ejected material looks like. Also, usually these holes would probably be filled with water eventually and maybe frozen even, so it's definitely new features. I would say not older than a year or so. Werman: I still want to know how this happened - what's your best guess from what you know from talking with your Russian colleagues and your own work studying permafrost and tundra. Romanovsky: We can only speculate at this point but I kind of speculate that because of warmer climates the ice melted inside of the ground, developing this big cavity. Then this cavity, for some reason, a pressure increased dramatically and eventually the pressure was more than what the ground above can hold and that's what exploded, erupted. Werman: You mentioned a warming climate - are we talking a climate change possibly leading to these giant holes? Romanovsky: That's true, especially in the high latitudes in the Arctic, this increase in temperature is very significant. Werman: Two of these new giant holes have been discovered. Do you think as people start looking we'll start finding more? Romanovsky: Definitely, because now we know what to look for, even in Alaska. Just last week I was in the peninsula area and I saw a very, very similar round lake - now it's already kind of vegetated a little bit, so it's definitely old but it looks very, very similar. You can imagine instead of this round lake the hole there, so now we'll be looking very, very carefully for what to see there. Werman: We've said obviously the Arctic and Siberia, it's pretty sparsely populated but there are some communities and settlements there. Is there any risk to people from this weird new phenomenon? Romanovsky: Yes, and infrastructure as well. I actually remember this happening in the Yamal peninsula, which right now is a very rapidly developing region in terms of gas and maybe possibly oil extractions, so that's very important to keep in mind and now people should pay attention to these kinds of phenomena. Werman: Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost geologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, thanks for your time. Romanovsky: You're welcome.