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Home > Abandoned - Explained, Asia, Environmental, Explained, Mining, Russia > Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell

Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell

courtesy John Bradley

Turkmenistan is seventy percent desert – the Karakum Desert, to be exact. The nation is divided into five provinces, the second largest being the Ahal Welayat which occupies the south-central portion of the country. Ahal is almost entirely desert and contains just fourteen percent of the country’s population, but it is also rich in natural resource deposits.

When Soviet scientists discovered a cache of oil reserves near the town of Derweze in the Karakum Desert, drilling quickly commenced. When a drilling rig collapsed and created a crater, large amounts of methane were released. When the oilmen attempted to burn off the methane, it started a fire that still burns over forty years later.

Photo courtesy Martha de Jong-Lantink

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Discovery

derweze_mapThe village of Derweze (also known as Darvaza) is centrally located in Turkmenistan, its 350 tribal residents braving the inhospitable conditions of the desert for hundreds of years.

Nothing could interrupt the peaceful and quiet lifestyle of the nomadic tribe, aside from sitting on a valuable cache of natural resources.

In the late sixties the Soviet Union sent exploration teams across the continent to locate deposits of gas and oil. By 1971 one of the groups had located what was believed to be a rich deposit underneath the village of Derweze. A camp was established, a drilling rig quickly set up, and operations began shortly thereafter.

As the drilling started, the petrochemical scientists started estimating the quantity of gas reserves available at the site. Initial estimates were positive, and when the Soviet drilling rigs confirmed their findings, production was increased to full capacity and they began storing the gas.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

Door_to_Hell_3 Door_to_Hell_2 Door_to_Hell_4

photos courtesy John Bradley

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Disaster Strikes

Door_to_Hell_5Disaster would strike soon after when the ground beneath the drilling rig gave way and sent the camp into a poisonous sinkhole. Miraculously no lives were lost in the disaster, but large quantities of methane gases were released into the atmosphere.

This created a significant environmental concern while threatening the health of the Derweze villagers. When methane (a dangerous greenhouse gas) is burned, it is a greater contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide.

The geologists determined the best course of action was to set the crater on fire. Burning off the excess methane over several days would be far cheaper and safer than using expensive equipment for extraction, which could be dangerous and take months.

Unfortunately, initial estimations of the site’s reserves were extremely low; when the scientists lit the gas, it erupted and didn’t stop burning. Over forty years later, the fire still burns. Locals quickly dubbed the site the Door to Hell and the Gas Crater of Darvaza.

Satellite view courtesy Bing Door_to_Hell_13 photo courtesy Mike Moss

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Danger, Evacuation, and Cleanup

The collapsed drilling crater is large, measuring 230 feet across (70m) and 66 feet deep (20m). The unpleasant smell of burning sulfur permeates the area for hundreds of yards in every direction while its recesses spit boiling mud with orange flames licking high from the molten rock.

Over growing concerns, the President of Turkmenistan ordered the village of Derweze to disband in 2004 – but not for safety reasons. Leader Saparmurat Niyazov claimed the village was an unpleasant sight for tourists to the crater.

In April of 2010 Turkmenistan leader Berdimuhamedow visited the Door to Hell and ordered it to be closed. The exposed burning crater hinders additional drilling in the area rich in natural resources. With the crater closed, Turkmenistan could resume drilling and provide more revenue. But by July of 2013 no action has been taken and the Darvaza gas crater fire still burns.

photo courtesy Rukhsana Batool

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Today

Since the disaster in 1971 there has been little exploration in the Karakum Desert. Turkmenistan has concentrated its effort in the Caspian Sea at Dauletabad-Donmez by the Iranian border and along the Amu-Darya Basin bordering Uzbekistan.

Over the past several years exploration in the desert has increased, both at the large South Yolotan/Osman gas fields and at Gutlyayak.

photo courtesy Melville Kenney

Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest reserve of natural gas in the world, and currently produces 75 billion cubic meters each year. Despite such riches of natural gas, the country has struggled to fund a cleanup operation.

To the country’s credit, leadership has announced a desire to clean up the site and close the Door to Hell. But until the country is given financial assistance or pressured politically, it appears unlikely the Door will be closed any time soon.

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See the fire burn:

Thanks to reader Carlos Chame for story lead

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  1. July 31, 2013 at 21:16

    It is a little terrifying that this fire has been burning longer than I have been alive. I wonder how much methane and other gases have burned off at this point.

    • August 1, 2013 at 14:26

      It’s definitely disconcerting, and the damage it’s doing to the environment makes it that much worse. Scary to think of how much damage it’s already done.

      Sadly the land out there has such little value so there’s not much urgency to take action. Probably safe to assume if the burning crater was in Beverly Hills it would have been filled, cleaned, and fixed the next day.

  2. August 1, 2013 at 08:37

    Phenomenal and devastating.

    Once again, Nero fiddles while Rome burns….

  3. August 1, 2013 at 09:03

    Very interesting. And how unlike the Soviets to have created a long-lasting ecological problem.

  4. Greg
    August 4, 2013 at 13:03

    hmm, not convinced the fire is necessarily worse for the environment than the methane just leaking out, it’s far worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas… just putting it out isn’t a panacea

    • September 4, 2013 at 18:49

      The leaking methane would be worse, at least from a climate change point of view. The fires would need to be put out and the hole filled in effectively enough to stop the leak.

  5. tabularasa88
    August 5, 2013 at 18:35

    I’m late in checking out your latest post, but this is fantastic,in the literal sense. Another great find! That first photo sold me, if I needed selling. All that’s missing is ritual human sacrifice.

  6. August 6, 2013 at 17:47

    What a sight to see!! Still burning after all these years- WOW!

  7. Ch Faisal
    August 11, 2013 at 06:24

    is it still burning ????

    • Bruno Lemos
      November 20, 2013 at 12:12

      yeap

  8. August 20, 2013 at 03:33

    I read a bit of this a long time ago and thought it was a hoax. But boy, this is real. I wonder how close one can get to the hole though.

  9. September 4, 2013 at 18:52

    When I first saw photos of this, I really wanted to visit – but your post has made me realise that tourism to the spot could be quite damaging. The authorities there will have very little desire to close a hole that’s causing intangible environmental damage when it’s bringing in tourist dollars.

  10. harm
    October 8, 2013 at 05:52

    Post a new article soon! We miss you!

  11. October 12, 2013 at 12:12

    Reblogged this on hawkeyethegnu's Blog and commented:
    What amazing sight.

  12. JC
    November 18, 2013 at 17:51

    it’s an environmental issue and prone to climate change.

  13. November 21, 2013 at 19:22

    Really enjoy your posts. Fascinating stuff!!!!

  14. khuram
    January 17, 2014 at 06:38

    control this burning with some way stop the oxigen and stop this fire. cover it with a large plate of stone then no oxigen and no more fire with this control on gas and its endless source if fire is not control able then make it as source of thermal power generation .

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