There are some places on earth, whether natural or man-made, that simply defy description. This is certainly one of them. Deep in the heart of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, there lives a large, fiery crater that glows hellish-red, both day and night. Known locally as the Gates of Hell, it is NOT volcanic. This man-made disaster has been burning uncontrolled, non-stop for over half a century. So what the heck makes this crater burn perpetually for decades, and why is it in the middle of an Asian desert?
The Darvaza Fire Crater is located in central Turkmenistan, north of Iran, just over 150 miles from the capital of Ashgabat. The crater is the size of a soccer pitch or football field – about 235 feet wide and 66 feet deep. This gaping hole in the otherwise flat desert does indeed appear to be unleashing the Fires of Hell. It’s quite a sight to behold. From time to time, locals and visitors have witnessed camel spiders plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured by the heat of the glowing flames.
So how did this bizarre inferno end up in the middle of nowhere?
It all started in 1971. Back then, Turkmenistan was not an independent nation, but rather a republic in communist Soviet Union. A group of Soviet geologists came to the Karakum Desert in search of oil. They thought they found a substantial oil field near the village of Darvaza (Derweze in Turkmen), set up a drill derrick and eagerly began drilling in earnest.
Instead, the unsuspecting engineers drilled not into oil, but rather a huge cavern of natural gas, with just a thin layer of sedimentary rock supporting the top of it. The pocket was so large, its roof could not support the immense weight of the Soviet drilling rig and pump. One day, a deep rumbling occurred, and the entire site collapsed and plunged into the earth itself, taking the entire rig and all the pipes and pump equipment with it. Reportedly, no one was injured, which is hard to believe, but all records of the disaster have long since been covered up by Communist leaders.
After the crater collapsed, the geologists realized they had a second, equally serious problem. Not only had this Door to Hell swallowed their entire drilling camp, but it was now rapidly leaking natural gas into the atmosphere. Though natural gas is mostly non-toxic methane, it still displaces the oxygen in the air, making it difficult to breathe. The wildlife of the Karakum Desert began to suffer, collapse and eventually die off. There was a real concern not only for the animals, but also for the people living in the nearby village of Derweze.
In addition to harming the people and the wildlife of the desert, the gas presented yet another problem. Methane is highly flammability, and just 5% methane in the air can burn and can cause an explosion. The high levels seeping from the open Darvaza crater made the area highly susceptible to a devastating explosion, resulting in a major environmental disaster for the Soviets.
That’s when Soviet geoscientists made a very bad decision.
They decided that since the natural gas could not be trapped, they would simply burn it off as a quick and easy fix. Their solution was to set the Darvaza crater on fire. As crazy as that might sound, it’s a common practice in natural gas drilling, known as “Flaring.” Unlike oil, which can be stored in large tanks or years, natural gas needs to be piped away and processed ASAP. If there’s an excess, drillers simply burn it off in a controlled fashion. It wastes millions of dollars worth of natural gas across the world every day.
But the Soviet engineers had no clue how much gas was underground and it proved to be far more than anyone could ever have imagined. They expected the burn off to take just a few weeks, but they were Very, Very Wrong. The flames they started have been burning for decades ever since. In fact, scientists today still don’t know how much natural gas is under the desert. Instead, the crater became the fiery Gates of Hell. What was supposed to be a few-week burn has turned into almost a 50 year desert bonfire. And, it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon.
In 1991, the USSR collapsed and Turkmenistan became an independent country. In 2010, Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, visited the Gates of Hell personally. He worried that the fire would threaten the country’s ability to develop usable natural gas fields nearby. Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves rank 5th in the world, so the prospect meant major income for his country. He ordered authorities to come up with a plan to put out the crater fire once and for all, and then to fill it up and bury it.
For a while, the fire crater’s future was at risk. However, a lack of any international natural gas pipeline and the question of exactly HOW to extinguish the Gates of Hell have never been pursued. No action was ever taken, and the crater continues to burn as hellish as ever. In 2013, he instead declared that part of the desert, containing the fire crater, a “Natural Reserve.” That same year, explorer George Kourounis, became the first person to walk into the crater and collect samples, in an expedition funded by National Geographic.
So what next for the Gates of Hell?
Social media has opened up a window on the world like never before. People post pictures of their pets and their food and their vacations. More and more are turning their backs on traditional family vacations and instead opting for a bit of adventure. The Darvaza Fire Crater now attracts thousands of daring tourists a year who come to the lonely desert to take in the evil-looking phenomenon. Its wicked orange glow can be seen for miles at night.
The fire crater is located about 161 miles from Ashgabat, about a 4 hour, remote desert drive. The nearest village with any amenities is Erment, over 50 miles away. You can rent an off-road vehicle and with a strong sense of adventure, go check it out for yourself. You’ll see some wild camels, a few scattered yurts, and the local Teke tribe who live in the nearby Darvaza village. There are no roads, no protective fences at its edges, no souvenir shops or cafes – just the endless flat desert and a hellish pit of fire.
It’s best to go at dusk or dawn, when the Satanic glow in the sky can be seen for miles. The contrast between the dark, desert skies and the deep, fiery pit below is indeed surreal. Once at the rim of the Gates of Hell, flames spew from thousands of individual gas leaks in the earth, generating a unique and otherworldly Fire Show. Stand at the edge if you dare, for falling in would mean a truly horrific death. All that said, for the truly adventuresome of you out there, if you happen to find yourself in Turkmenistan with a few hours to spare ….