Huge undying flames lick the air, casting a menacing glow for miles around the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan. Dubbed by the locals as the 'Door to Hell', the source for all this heat and light is a massive crater, within which a raging inferno has been burning for decades, fed by a seemingly endless pocket of natural gas. While a local legend says that the crater has been burning for more than 200 years, the real story behind its formation is actually much more recent.
Did You Know?In 2013, a Canadian adventurer, George Kourounis, rappelled down the side of the Door to Hell using a special protective suit, making him the first to reach the base of the crater. The soil samples he collected there showed that, despite the intense heat, the pit is inhabited by extremophile bacteria, which thrive on methane and sulfur emissions.
In 1971, while Turkmenistan was still a part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet researchers were looking for a suitable site for extracting natural gas. Since the Ahal province of Turkmenistan is rich in this natural resource, the scientists settled for a small village in this area, named Darvaza, where a suitable site was identified, and arrangements were done to set up a drilling rig and a working campsite.
Location of the Door to Hell Crater
Initially, the work went smoothly. All the equipment was set perfectly, gas was being extracted and stored, and everyone was celebrating their success. However, misfortune struck the project unexpectedly, when the ground under the camp and rig collapsed completely, turning the area into a massive crater. In an instant, any sign of the gas drilling project had disappeared completely. Fortunately, no one was injured and no lives were lost. Now, besides losing all their equipment to the crater, the scientists were against a more serious issue. With the opening of the crater, a lot of natural gas was being released into the atmosphere. It was estimated that, if the release of gas was not stopped, it would poison the air for miles around, potentially killing hundreds of people. To stop this from happening, a plan was quickly conceived.
As the gas was deemed to be toxic, it was decided to leave all the equipment and the drilling rig inside the pit. To stop the gas from spreading, the researchers felt that their best bet would be to set it on fire. They estimated that the fire would burn for a few days, all the while consuming the excess gas in the pit, before dying out by itself. The plan worked, sort of. The gas burned and the poisoning of the atmosphere was prevented. However, instead of burning for only a few days, the fires in the pit kept burning ferociously for more than 40 years, and is still burning today. The name of the local village, 'Darvaza', means door. Visitors to the area linked the name of the village to the hellish appearance of the crater, which is why it has been named so.
Door to Hell Crater
The Door to Hell crater is 66 feet deep and 230 feet wide, and one can see the pit spewing out boiling mud, occasionally. The temperature of the pit is usually in excess of 1,000 degree Celsius. This intense heat and light is the reason why large camel spiders are attracted to the Door to Hell in swarms, numbering in the thousands. An arachnophobe's most realistic version of hell.
The effects of the burning gas have largely been negative. The constantly burning crater releases pungent smelling sulfuric gas, which fouls the air for miles around, making it an unpleasant place to be near. The gas not only smells bad, but it also pollutes the atmosphere by adding vast amounts of greenhouses gases to the air. The flames are so ferocious that the glow from the pit can be seen day and night from many miles away. The ever-burning flames are also consuming a vast amount of precious natural gas, which can be used productively elsewhere.
The only advantage of this place is that, the Door to Hell has become a major tourist attraction for the country. People from around the world brave tough conditions to stand on the edge of the crater and gaze upon the spectacular fires, thereby putting Turkmenistan in the spotlight, and bringing in important foreign revenue for the nation.
In April 2010, orders for extinguishing the fires and sealing the crater were given by the president of Turkmenistan, to stop the pit from removing gas from other drilling sites nearby. However, so far, this task is yet to be completed, due to opposition from the tourism industry. If the fire is not extinguished, the Door to Hell is expected to keep on burning for several decades more. Since the disaster, there has hardly been any exploration, despite the vast natural resources of the country. All exploration projects has been shifted to the Caspian Sea area, and the borders of Iran and Uzbekistan.
Since the Darvaza Gas Crater is unique and brings in tourists, many would like to keep it going for as long as possible. However, the effects of burning the methane gas is much worse than the consequences of other greenhouse gas emissions on global warming. While one must preserve unique and interesting places on our planet, it is much more important to respect the environment. However, the cleanup operation is not going to be easy for a country without financial help or political pressure from the outside.