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In the world of weird science, 2014 was the year of zero-G gecko sex that ended badly, laser-guided sea monkeys and the first transatlantic smell transmission. But even those weird tales can't match the rise of the Siberian black holes.
It's not just the strangeness associated with coming across a 100-foot-wide (30-meter-wide) crater in one of the world's most remote regions: There's also the buzz over whether the pit was created by a massive meteor strike or an alien invasion, as well as a possible link to the accelerated thawing of the permafrost due to climate change.
Some experts have suggested the Siberian black holes were opened up by the sudden release of methane gas that had been accumulating beneath the ice for millennia due to the slow decomposition of buried organic material. But Tom Wagner, cryosphere program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, says a more likely factor has to do with the water that's created by Siberia's thaw.
"That water is carving out tunnels and caves under the permafrost," Wagner explained on PBS' "NewsHour" in August. "And we had probably a collapse, and the water blew back out and brought out the material that you see erupted around the edges."
Both methane and water may play a role — and if the climate models that predict a warming world are correct, there could be many more black holes to come. Researchers are exploring the craters they know about already, and poring over satellite images as they search for more.
"Some of the questions we're asking are, 'Wow, how many more of them are out there? And how can we find them?'" Wagner told NBC News on Monday. "It's a fascinating mystery, and I think we're going to hear some more about it next year."
For all these reasons, the black holes of Siberia win the highest honors in our annual Weird Science Awards, also known as the Weirdies. But it's also worth giving a shout-out to other scientific tales that make you go "oooh," or "ewww."
We've put together a list of 15 more highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective). Go to the NBC News Science Facebook page and cast a vote for your favorite by "liking" the image associated with the story. We'll rank the stories based on the number of likes received, and crown the most-liked story with the Weirdies' People's Choice Award.
- Even severed snake heads can bite, scientists say
- Ancient Egyptian woman found with 70 hair extensions
- Solar tower project gets killed after birds get fried
- Rosetta probe spots the 'Face on the Comet'
- Ancient swamp creature with big lips named after Mick Jagger
- Russians use Ukrainian military dolphins, but for what porpoise?
- Reindeer get glow-in-the-dark antlers to keep them safe
- Replica of Vincent van Gogh's ear created from live cells
- Flash on Mars sparks a stir among UFO fans
- World's first transatlantic 'scent message' delivered
- Dogs use an inner compass when they poop, scientists say
- Worm that lived in brain for years has genome sequenced
- Laser-guided sea monkeys reveal how critters boost waves
- Geckos die during Russian zero-G sex experiment
- Sea lily species name sells for $6,150 on eBay
Previously on the Weird Science Awards:
- 2014: Bat sex and doomsday bosons
- 2013: Celebrate the Maya non-apocalypse
- 2012: Meth-addled flies and zombie ants
- 2011: Sex, booze and not-so-stupid animal tricks
- 2010: One small step for lab-grown rabbit penises
- 2009: Far out! This pot stash is 2,700 years old
- 2008: Glow-in-the-dark kitties cloned
Does weird science drive you wild? Tune in to "Virtually Speaking Science" at 8 p.m. ET Jan. 7 to hear all about scientific weirdness from Marc Abrahams, the editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and the impresario behind the Ig Nobel Prizes. The "poop compass" story won one of this year's Ig Nobels, which celebrates "science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think."
You can listen to "Virtually Speaking Science," hosted by NBC News' Alan Boyle, via BlogTalkRadio — or join the cyber-audience in the Exploratorium's virtual auditorium in Second Life. If you miss the live show, never fear: You can always catch up with the hourlong podcast in the BlogTalkRadio archive or on iTunes. November's show featured SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak talking about the movie "Interstellar" and the search for habitable worlds.