There's serious danger from a flatulent Earth

Renee Watson

Renee Watson

First published in Columns Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , (It's Not) Rocket Science

The idea of the ground opening and swallowing us up is the stuff of Hollywood and nightmares right? Well, if you lived in Siberia then you might be thinking again.

Early in July an enormous crater seemed to appear out of nowhere in the Siberian wilderness. Spanning 262ft and so deep that researchers haven’t been able to reach the bottom yet, the crater turned out to be the first of three that opened up over the past month.

As you might expect an unusual event like this attracts claims of alien invasions, devils emerging from the bowels of hell and similar, less than rational, explanations.

So naturally I turned to science to try to uncover some kind of logical reason only to find that the answer seems to be that the earth farted.

Yes, you read correctly, a huge discharge of methane gas, trapped down there for centuries has escaped. What a release.

However scientists think that this planetary parp is seriously bad news for our planet. That in fact it is a clear sign of climate change.

Anyone who has been to, or flown over, Siberia will know that it is one cold place. Huge portions of land are made up of frozen earth and ice, which, because they have been that way for more than two years, is called Permafrost.

The Siberian Permafrost is thought to be a lot older than that – at least 30,000 years older – and it is pretty important.

Permafrost is thought to trap more carbon-based gases than we humans have emitted during our whole existence.

If all that carbon gets out into our atmosphere it will undoubtedly accelerate global warming.

Scientists are trying to predict the consequences of that kind of acceleration and it doesn’t look pretty.

It is thought that two years of unusually warm weather is the cause of the earth defrosting for the first time since the dinosaurs and concerns about the fall out from this aren’t just environmental – a giant virus was recently discovered in thawed Siberian permafrost.

The virus can’t infect humans but when it was put with its favourite host – amoeba – it quickly set to work infecting them.

This Pithovirus was a new discovery and proved that a virus that hung out with mammoths is capable of surviving in that environment for that long. Couple that impressive and slightly scary ability with the fact that Permafrost is preserving huge quantities of bacteria and virus and you have a microbiologists dream – millions of new, undiscovered infectious micro-beasts just waiting to be named after you!

The new Siberian craters are unstable. The scientists working on them report hearing tumbling earth and running water inside the gaping holes. At present we have no idea where new holes might appear as we don’t know where the biggest parcels of trapped methane lie. What is clear, is that the slightest change in global temperatures, as little as 1.5 degrees C, is causing the earth serious indigestion. And a flatulent earth is not funny.

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