Derweze (also known as Darvaza) is a village in Turkmenistan of about 350 inhabitants, located in the middle of the Karakum Desert, about 260 km north of Ashgabat.
Darvaza inhabitants are mostly Turkmen of the Teke tribe, preserving a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In 2004 the village was disbanded following the order of the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, because “it was an unpleasant sight for tourists.” More than four decades ago, a gaping, fiery crater opened up in the desert of northern Turkmenistan, likely the result of a drilling mishap.
In 1971 in the Karakum desert, not far from the Darvaza village, Soviet geologists started to drill at the site where they tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas. During the drilling an accident happened, equipment and transport fell down in a big hole. The largest of these craters measures about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep. No one was injured, but there was gas coming out of the hole. Fearing that the hole would lead to the release of poisonous gases, the team decided to burn it off. It was hoped that the fire would use all the fuel within a few days, but weeks, months and years passed, and it is still burning today.
In 2004 Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov issued an order for the Darvaza village to be moved to another place for safety reasons. No one knows how long it will still be burning, whether the gas supplies will run out or will the hole will be closed in the end as gas is a valuable resource and it is not burning idle for a few decades. Nevertheless, this natural gas fire remains one of the most enigmatic sights of Turkmenistan attracting numerous tourists every year.
Natural gas is composed mostly of methane, which, though not toxic, does displace oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. This wasn’t so much an issue for the scientists, but for the animals that call the Karakum Desert home—shortly after the collapse, animals roaming the area began to die. The escaping methane also posed dangers due to its flammability—there needs to be just five per cent methane in the air for an explosion to potentially take place.
So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time. It’s not as outlandish as it sounds—in oil and natural gas drilling operations, this happens all the time to natural gas that can’t be captured. Unlike oil, which can be stored in tanks indefinitely after drilling, natural gas needs to be immediately processed—if there’s an excess of natural gas that can’t be piped to a processing facility, drillers often burn the natural gas to get rid of it. It’s a process called “flaring,” and it wastes almost a million dollars of worth of natural gas each day in North Dakota alone.
One visitor has gone one step further than just standing on the edge. Canadian explorer, George Kourounis, actually entered the hell hole in a heat-reflective suit. Describing it as a “coliseum of fire”, Kourounis found bacteria living in a micro-system at the crater’s base. And it’s a truly alien landscape down there. This mad exploration was supported by the National Geographic, in the hope that evidence of life in these conditions would mean that on other planets with similar environments life could be found. This man-made crater of molten lava and brutal heat is unique in the world. No-one quite knows when all the methane gas will be burnt up and the Door to Hell is shut forever.
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