The “Gates of Hell”, a gaping hole in the middle of the Karakum Desert, in Turkmenistan, have been permanently burning since 1971. After 50 years of non-stop burning, the country’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said in a TV appearance, on 8 January, that a solution must be found to extinguish the fire.
Also known as the “Shining of Karakum” or the Darvaza gas crater, the site has become a popular tourist attraction with the surrounding area also being popular for wild desert camping.
1. Drilling accident
But how did this giant hole measuring roughly 70 meters wide and at least 20 meters deep show up there? The story dates back to 1971, when Soviet geologists (Turkmenistan was part of the former URSS) were looking for natural gas in the Karakum Desert.
Accidentally, during drilling operations to extract gas, disaster struck and the ground beneath the drill rig collapsed with the rig plunging into a natural gas cavern. The accident led to a vast amount of methane leakage into the air and geologists decided to set the crater on fire, not even dreaming that the hole would be burning endlessly up until today.
Despite the drilling theory being cited by several media outlets, including AFP, Reuters, Live Science and many others, some facts are disputed regarding the origins of the flaming crater.
Interviewed to the media outlet NPR, George Kourounis from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society talked about the conflicting stories: “It was definitely a natural gas drilling operation that went awry that collapsed into a sinkhole. A lot of people say it happened in 1971. But when I was in Turkmenistan, I spoke to some local geologists, and they were very adamant that it happened in the 1960s and didn’t catch on fire until the 1980s.”.
2. Natural gas
Turkmenistan lies on massive natural gas deposits, being the fourth country in the world with the largest reservoirs. The country’s economy is largely dependent on gas exports, perhaps the reason why President Berdymukhamedov wants to finally take action and close the burning gap.
“We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people,” Berdymukhamedov told AFP as he cited health and environmental concerns for the people nearby the burning crater.
“I understand why they might want to extinguish this fire. They want to access the natural gas reserves that are underneath. It’s a bit of an embarrassment to the government,” said Kourounis.
3. Terminating a rare phenomenon
In 2010, the Turkmenistan’s leader asked experts to quash the “Gates of Hell” but the task proved unsuccessful. Later on, in 2013, he declared the part of the Karakum Desert with the gaping hole a nature reserve.
Having won the status of an incredible natural phenomenon and becoming a hotspot for tourism, in 2014, the burning hole was featured in an episode of the National Geographic Channel.
In 2019, the burning crater became even more notorious, especially on the Internet, when President Berdymukhamedov shared a video of himself performing doughnuts next to the flaming hole.