If the president of Turkmenistan is on his way, then the gate to hell will soon be closed. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said he wants to extinguish the famous flaming crater that has been burning in the Central Asian country for decades. This would make the most important attractions disappear for tourists in a country without tourists. By the way: we still do not know how the gate to hell opened, only that the official version, invented by the Soviet occupiers at that time, is incorrect.
The Karakum Desert is a vast area of sun-burned sand dunes that covers about 70% of Turkmenistan. Spend days cruising through this dry, 350,000-square-mile badlands, seeing nothing but the endless peaks and valleys of the arid Karakum wilderness. But if you make your way to the northern central desert plain, you’ll find a truly surreal place: Darvaza Crater, a gas pit that has been spouting fire for decades and known as the “Gates of Hell”.
The desert crater, about 260 kilometers north of the capital Ashgabat, is a popular attraction for the few tourists who come to Turkmenistan, the hard-to-reach country. In 2019, Turkmen state television showed pictures of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov driving around in an off-road truck. But Berdymukhamedov has now ordered his government to look for ways to put out the fire, as it is causing environmental damage and affecting the health of people in the region, Turkmenistan’s state newspaper, Netralny Turkmenistan, reported. This isn’t the first time he’s done this, though. In 2010, Berdymukhamedov also asked scientists to close the gate to hell. So nothing came of it.
So how did this fiery hell end in the middle of a desert in Turkmenistan?
In 1971, when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to Karakum in search of oil fields. They found what they thought was a large oil field and started drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were digging over a cavernous bubble of natural gas that couldn’t bear the weight of their equipment. The site collapsed, and they took their equipment with it – the event caused the rickety sedimentary rocks of the desert to collapse elsewhere as well, creating a domino effect that resulted in many open craters. The largest of these craters is Darvaza Crater.
No one was reportedly injured in the collapse, but scientists soon encountered another problem: natural gas leaking from the crater. Natural gas consists primarily of methane, which, although not toxic, displaces oxygen, making breathing difficult. This wasn’t a huge problem for scientists, but for the animals that call the Karakum desert home – soon after the collapse, the animals roaming the area actually started dying off. Leaked methane also poses risks due to its flammability – there must be only five percent of methane in the air for an explosion to occur. So the scientists decided to set fire to the crater, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn out within a few weeks.
Problem: Locals tell a different story
By the way, this is not as strange as it seems – in oil and natural gas exploration, this constantly happens with natural gas that cannot be captured. Unlike oil, which can be stored indefinitely in reservoirs after drilling, natural gas must be processed immediately. If there is excess natural gas that cannot be directed to a processing facility, it is burned. It is a process called “burning”.
But unlike most places where this ignition occurs, scientists in Turkmenistan haven’t handled a calculated amount of natural gas – scientists still don’t know how much natural gas is feeding the burning crater – so what was supposed to burn for a few weeks is already set to burn in desert for nearly half a century.
What was described above is the official version. However, there is a problem with that. Canadian explorer George Koronis, who became the first and only ever to probe the depths of the crater in 2013, discovered that no one really knows how this infernal hell emerged. According to local Turkmen geologists, the crater, which is 69 meters wide and 30 meters deep, was formed already in the 1960s and has only burned since the 1980s. For example, some geologists believe that the crater resulted from the movements of groundwater under the Karakum Desert. Which version of the story is true remains a mystery.
Indiana Jones’ distant cousin
Korons is still the only person who has descended into the crater. The Canadian-born explorer is reminiscent of a distant cousin of Indiana Jones. It chased after hurricanes and hurricanes, was nearly buried alive in avalanches, and even entered volcanoes. But it was the trip to the Darzava desert – and to the fiery crater – in November 2013 that made Coronus famous.
It is known that getting permission to travel to Turkmenistan is difficult in any case. Korons first sought permission from Turkmenistan in 2009 to collect soil samples from the crater. He wanted to investigate microscopic bacteria, thinking that if life could thrive in those extreme conditions, similar life might exist on another planet. But the government of Turkmenistan refused his visa.
Corones returned with the support of both the National Geographic Society and the US Embassy, and even then it took a year and a half to approve the expedition. In 2013, the government allowed the team to camp at Gates to Hell for four days.
Going down to the crater of the volcano is no small feat. Corones and his team realized that cold air had fallen into the center of the hole. This air became warm and rushed up around the edges, reaching a temperature of nearly 100 degrees Celsius. The team decided to extend a fire-resistant rope over the crater and lower Coronce to the center of the crater via a pulley. Most of the materials Corones used were custom made. For example, the armor he was wearing was made of Kevlar, the same material used in body armor, so it wouldn’t melt.
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