“Door to Hell” Gas Crater in Turkmenistan
In 1971, the Soviet Union had set its sights on looking for areas in which they could drill for gas and oil. The Soviets decided to do their drilling in the Karakum Desert, located by Derweze Village located in Darvaza, Turkmenistan. However, once they gathered all the people and equipment they needed and had begun drilling into the ground, the ground collapsed, taking the drill and other equipment with it. The Soviets had also realized that the crater they had created was emitting high amounts of what they discovered was methane gas. Fearing that that amount of methane gas would be very harmful to the animal inhabitants of the desert surrounding the crater, the locals knew that the they had to come up with a plan to control or stop the flow of gas. In the end, Soviet petrochemical students decided that the best thing to do would be to burn off the remaining gas. They made this plan assuming that the gas would burn off in a few days. However, 43 years later and the crater is still burning strong with no signs of stopping any time soon. The locals of the area quickly nicknamed this gas crater the “Door to Hell” because of its seemingly supernatural property of burning for that long and also the fact the Darvaza, where the crater is located, translates to “the gate”.
That is the most reliable story to how the “Door to Hell” was created. The truth is that scientists and historian alike are still unclear about how the crater actually came into being, but the story involving the Soviet Union and drilling is the most common story told by all parties. Why would the Soviet’s even choose Turkmenistan to drill for oil? Turkmenistan may be a small, forgotten little country in the middle east, but it is the country that possess the world’s fourth largest reserve of natural gas in the world. It is because of this that it makes sense that the Soviet’s would choose Turkmenistan to drill for gas and it can also help in explaining how the crater itself has been burning for so long.
The “Door to Hell” crater is 225 feet wide and 98 feet deep and is located in the middle of the Karakum Desert, which makes up about 70 percent of Turkmenistan. The idea of this crater has not only baffled the minds of scientists, but it has also sparked the interest of many people all over the world. The Turkmenistan government has been using the crater as a way to get people to come explore the tiny country, and it has been working. The small country normally only welcomes about 12,000-15,000 tourists from around 50 countries a year, however those numbers are steadily increasing because of increased interest in the crater. However, not all people agree that the crater is an interesting sight. In 2004, former Turkmenistan president Saparmurat Niyazov was flying to Derweze Village and was appalled by the sight of the crater below, saying “I don’t want to see this next time I fly over,” and sent bulldozers and evacuated people from the village and tore it down. (Bland, 2014) However, the villagers he forcibly evacuated later built another encampment, which is the present-day Derweze Village.
Initially in 2010, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, president of Turkmenistan, tried to have the gas crater get filled in saying that it had been burning for long enough. His opinion quickly changed however when he realized the amount of attention his country was getting due to the crater, so he created a state nature reserve in the Karakum desert, including the gas crater to preserve it.
Everyone has different experiences when visiting the “Door to Hell”, however one man in particular does a great job at summarizing his experience of the crater. One of the first visitors to the crater was a man by the name of Will Keeping, a retiree from Buchlyvie. Keeping was unaware of the craters existence until he was told that it was one of the hundred most bizarre places to visit before you die. When Keeping first arrived in the desert and saw the crater during the daylight, he said “I was initially not impressed as it looked like a hole in a vast desert. As we got nearer and the glow from inside the carter became evident, though, I started to notice the size of the crater and wondered how it could continually glow like that” (Caters, 2013). However, the crater can only be truly experienced during the nighttime, and when Keeping say the glow of the crater at night, he had this to say, “As the sun began to set, the location slowly transformed from a large, isolated furnace in the middle of the desert into the center of attention that dominated the surrounding area — the glow became more intense and lit up the area including the sky above. It was impossible not to be drawn to the crater, something that was just dominant over the surrounding area.” (Caters, 2013)
Will Keeping may have been one of the first of many to experience the crater and all that it had to offer, but was that really all it had to offer? Is this crater meant to be nothing more than a tourist attraction meant to boost the economy of Turkmenistan? The answer to that question can be answered by one man, and his name is George Kourounis.
George Kourounis is a scientist, explorer, and storm chaser who became very interested in the “Door to Hell” gas crater for much more than tourism. On an expedition that was funded partly and supported by National Geographic and supported by the travel company Kensington Tours, Kourounis set out to be the first man to physically go inside the gas crater. For 18 months, Kourounis went through preparations and plans to prepare himself and his team for the leap into “hell”. The preparations for the project included setting up a rope-rigging system over a local river gorge and practicing out there several times, including tests with the heat-reflective suit, self-contained breathing apparatus, and the climbing harness that he would be wearing. The harness had to be made out of kevlar because a regular climbing harness would just melt under the extreme heat.
What was the point of the all of this preparation? Why was Kourounis risking his life to jump into a huge, burning gas crater? He wasn’t just some thrillseeker out to jump into a fiery pit of hell, Kourounis was jumping into the crater to obtain soil samples from the very bottom. Kourounis and his team were hoping to find bacteria living down in the hot environment of the crater. If they could successfully find traces of bacteria living in the crater, it could provide valuable insight and information into how to enable humans to live on planets with similar conditions to those in the gas crater.
In November of 2013, George Kourounis was finally ready to enter into the crater. He talks about how scary it was taking that first step off the edge and entering the crater. He describes his time in the crater as “surreal” describing the inside of the crater as “a coliseum of fire—just everywhere you look it’s thousands of these small fires. The sound was like that of a jet engine, this roaring, high-pressure, gas-burning sound. And there was no smoke. It burns very cleanly, so there’s nothing to obscure your view. You can just see every little lick of flame. There were a few moments that I just literally had to stop, look around, and drink in the spectacle of where I was. I could see my teammates up on the crater rim, just these tiny specks lit by this fire. You feel very, very small and very vulnerable in a place like that.” (Nunez, 2014). In the end, the expedition into the crater was successful and Kourounis successfully found traces of bacteria living in the crater, proving that living things could successfully sustain life in those types of conditions.
Even if the story of how the “Door to Hell” gas crater is still somewhat of a mystery, it’s existence in this world has had much benefit. Whether it’s helping out the economy and tourism of the small country of Turkmenistan, providing scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, or just giving the people of this world an interesting sight to see, the “Door to Hell” is truly an intriguing scientific phenomenon.
- Turkmenistan hopes ‘Door to Hell’ will boost tourism. (2014, June 22). Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/turkmenistan-hopes-door-to-hell-will-boost-tourism-1.1880647
- Bland, S. (2014, April 8). Turkmenistan’s “Gate to Hell” Is Keeping a Destitute Village Afloat | VICE | United States. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://www.vice.com/read/turkmenistan-has-its-very-own-gate-to-hell
- Caters. (2013, November 19). Turkmenistan crater has burned for more than 40 years. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/turkmenistan-crater-burned-40-years-article-1.1521944
- Nunez, C. (2014, July 16). Q&A: The First-Ever Expedition to Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell” Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/07/140716-door-to-hell-darvaza-crater-george-kourounis-expedition/
- Lieberman, J. (2013, November 21). ‘Door To Hell’: Turkmenistan Crater Has Been On Fire For Over 40 Years [VIDEO]. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://www.isciencetimes.com/articles/6368/20131121/door-to-hell-video-fire-derweze-turkmenistan.htm