In Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, there burns an eternal flame. Known as the Darvaza gas crater, or the “Gates of Hell”, the hole in the ground has been burning for over 50 years.
The phenomenon dates back to 1971, and a drilling operation carried out by the Soviet Union, when Turkmenistan was under Soviet rule. Geologists were looking for natural gas reserves, when they accidentally hit a cavern underground filled with natural gas. The ground underneath the rig collapsed and the crater was formed.
It measures 229 feet wide and 65 feet deep.
To avoid these potentially harmful gasses being released into the desert, the authorities made the decision to light the gas on fire and try to burn it off. Initial expectations were that the gas would burn off within weeks.
Weeks became months. Months became years. Years became decades and now, 52 years later, the gas is burning with no indication of slowing down on its own accord.
Despite being popular tourist attraction in the ex-Soviet country, Turkmenistan’s authorities have long attempted to extinguish the flames. In 2010, the country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, ordered experts to find a way to put out the fire. He re-upped his efforts in 2022, saying the human-made crater “negatively affects both the environment and the health of the people living nearby”.
Natural gas is Turkmenistan’s largest export, and Berdimuhamedow alluded to the financial upside of extinguishing the fire as well.
“We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the wellbeing of our people.” he said.
George Kourounis, the first man to descend to the bottom of the pit in November 2013, told Sarah Durn of Atlas Obscura that even seemingly logical fixes might prove futile.
“As I was digging into the ground [at the bottom of the crater] to gather these soil samples, fire would start coming out of the hole I just freshly dug because it was creating new paths for the gas to come out of the crater,” Kourounis says. “So even if you were to extinguish the fire and cover it up, there’s a chance that the gas could still find its way out to the surface and all it would take is one spark to light it up again.”
Wanting the fire extinguished still didn’t stop the president crowning it the “Shining of Karakum” back in 2018. Suppose that sounds a bit better than “Gates of Hell”…