A surreal feature on the barren landscape of the Karakum Desert near the Derweze village in Turkmenistan, 260 kilometers from its capital city of Ashkabat, has been attracting tourists for the last few decades. Named as the Darvaza Crater or “Door to Hell”, the feature represents a gaping crater on the surface of the land created by a mining miscalculation in a natural gas field whose walls collapsed into an underground cavern. To prevent the toxic methane gas from escaping into the atmosphere and the surrounding areas, the geologists thought it best to set the crater on fire, which now appears to burn forever. The burning mouth of the crater thus appears to represent the “Door to Hell”, a point of no return. The crater now encompasses an area of around 5,320 square meters, with a diameter of about 226 feet and a depth of about 98 feet.
The “Door to Hell” in Turkmenistan is the result of human errors. In 1971, a team of Soviet engineers identified the site for oil drilling and an oil rig was dug at the site. Soon, the engineers realized it was not oil but natural gas that was present underneath and the escape of gas triggered a collapse of the drilling rig and camp into an underground cavern. To prevent the toxic gases from escaping into the nearby towns and villages causing perils to human health there, the geologists decided to burn the gases off. However, what they thought would be a burning incident lasting for only a few weeks, went on for more than four decades with the fire burning bright even today in the “Door to Hell”.
3. Relationship to Regional Energy Development
Turkmenistan has the ambitious goal to triple its gas reserves in the next twenty years and the availability of the natural gas reserves in the Karakum Desert makes it an ideal choice for natural gas mining. However, the presence of the “Door to Hell” might hinder such explorations as fire from the crater might spread to nearby natural gas reserves. Hence, in 2010, the President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan ordered the closure of the crater. The increase in natural gas production of the country would empower its economy significantly through export revenue generated by exporting natural gas to markets in India, China, Russia, and Western Europe.
2. Habitat and Biodiversity
Thought the fiery crater was not expected to house any living species, an expedition by the explorer, George Kourounis, a daring individual who risked his life to step into the crater, uncovered the unexpected. Samples of soil collected by Kourounis from the base of the crater when studied revealed the presence of extremophilic bacteria that are able to survive the high heat of the crater. These bacteria are not found anywhere in the surrounding soil, meaning that they include new, evolved species that have the ability to survive the hot environment of the crater. The conditions of the crater, resembling those in some planets and moons of outer space, could mean that alien life is possible in such landscapes. The expedition of Kourounis was broadcast on July 16th, 2014, on the National Geographic Channel in an episode of Die Trying entitled “Crater of Fire”.
1. Threats and Disputes
Today, only a few tourists visit the “Door to Hell” in Turkmenistan as the country is still one of the most isolated countries in the world. The government of Turkmenistan now wishes to promote tourism and also advertise the “Door to Hell” as one of its prime tourist destinations. Currently, however, the enormous fire pit is not fenced and tourists often approach dangerously close to the edges of the pit. The ground near the edges being unstable poses significant threat to the lives of these irresponsible tourists. Still, the “Door to Hell” continues to inspire the awe of all and will continue to do so till the fire dies down or the pit is closed by the authorities.