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Black Holes of Yamal

Scientists unraveling the mystery of Siberia’s giant craters

When mysterious craters first appeared in the Yamal peninsula in 2013, scientists didn’t know what caused them. Colossal holes up to 30 metres deep look as if they were left by powerful blasts. Wild theories proliferated on social media pointing to meteorites, aliens, and stray missiles.

Nenets reindeer herders who witnessed the formation of some of the craters say they felt the earth moving and heard loud explosions. These indigenous people have lived off the surrounding tundra for generations and say the mysterious craters could be a sign that “someone sometime did something wrong.” They prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. “Man is a long way from learning about nature,” says Vera Horotetto, a local woman.

Russian scientists have been looking for explanations since they first discovered the Yamal craters. So far, they’ve located 17 mysterious holes. Scientists believe they form as a result of methane and carbon dioxide trapped inside the permafrost escaping to the surface. ‘Precursor mounds’ that appear prior to the crater testify to their theory.

Although some suspect global warming, Russian scientists say that, while temperature changes might speed up the process, it doesn’t cause the craters. The Yamal peninsula is a land of permafrost, but it’s the only zone with permanently frozen ground that experiences this natural phenomenon.

We travelled to the Yamal peninsula to talk to local Nenets reindeer herders, as well as researchers who are close to solving the riddle of the Yamal craters.