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Russian holes pose climate change threat

Wednesday 6 Aug 2014 11:33 a.m.

Scientists are suggesting climate change could be to blame for the emergence of large holes in the Siberian permafrost.

And they could be a sign that the fight against global warming is about to get a lot more difficult.

"That part of the world is basically permafrost – the ground is absolutely frozen," AUT applied sciences professor Allan Blackman said on Firstline this morning. "The last couple of years, summers up there have been quite warm, about 5degC warmer than normal."

The warm air has weakened the permafrost, scientists believe, allowing subsurface methane to push its way out.

"An enormous great burst, bubble, whatever you want to call it, of methane just came up and blew a hole in the surface of the Earth."

This is backed up by measurements taken at the scene of one of the holes, which showed a methane concentration 50,000 times higher than usually found in air.

Dr Blackman says no one's really sure just how much methane is beneath the Earth's surface, except that it's a "heck of a lot".

"Methane is a greenhouse gas, and it's actually a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide," he says. "There's methane all over the planet – it gets formed when organic matter decays. If there's no oxygen around it's methane that gets formed, and that's where you get natural gas deposits from.

"If the permafrost starts melting and the trapped methane is getting released – then it could be a very great problem for climate change."

The peninsula which houses the 30m-wide holes is home to the largest-known reserves of natural gas in all of resource-rich Russia.

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