The effort to extinguish Turkmenistan’s ‘Gateway to Hell’

Natural gas crater in the Karakum desert has burned for five decades

The 70m-wide ‘Gateway to Hell’ in the Karakum desert
The 70m-wide ‘Gateway to Hell’ in the Karakum desert
(Image credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Turkmenistan’s president has ordered the extinguishing of a huge fire that has been burning for decades in a desert gas crater.

Known as the “Gateway to Hell”, the 70m wide and 20m deep crater in the heart of the Karakum desert “is thought to be the result of a botched Soviet drilling operation that released huge amounts of methane”, The Times said.

“Miners are believed to have set light to the gas to stop it from spreading,” inadvertently igniting the endless fire in the process.

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However, “mystery surrounds the Darvaza crater’s creation”, the BBC reported, with an examination by Canadian explorer George Kourounis in 2013 concluding that “no-one actually knows how it started”.

An alternate explanation put forward by Turkmen geologists is that the “huge crater formed in the 1960s but was only lit in the 1980s”.

Kourounis, who became the first person to descend into the crater during his assessment, told National Geographic: “The place has always fascinated me. The story behind how it came into existence has been sort of shrouded in mystery, and there’s no other place like it on Earth.

“When you first set eyes on the crater, it’s like something out of a science fiction film. When you go out over, looking straight down, it’s literally like another planet, almost.”

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said that the pit must be extinguished as it “negatively affects both the environment and the health of the people living nearby”, continuing that he has instructed officials to “find a solution to extinguish the fire”.

“We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people,” he added in a televised address.

Turkmenistan’s ‘Gateway to Hell’ in the Karakum desert

(Image credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

The country is home to “the world’s fifth largest natural gas reserves”, Radio Free Europe reported. But “life for the majority of the country’s six million people remains difficult”.

Berdymukhamedov has ruled since 2006 “with an iron fist, tolerating little dissent while isolating it from the outside world amid an economic crisis that has plunged many citizens into poverty”. This has meant “shortages of basic goods and food are common”.

According to Bloomberg, Turkmenistan is also “one of the world’s worst emitters of the greenhouse gas methane”, with a 2021 study by the International Energy Agency placing it behind Russia, the US, Iran and Iraq in the top five global emissions rankings for the gas.

The crater, which resembles “a supernatural portal to the underworld”, has for decades “​​been a big draw to the handful of tourists that enter the notoriously secretive state”, Sky News reported.

Berdymukhamedov also “hasn’t always had such disdain for the crater”, the broadcaster added, and “was filmed in 2019 speeding around it in an off-road truck”. In 2010, he officially renamed the fire the “Shining of Karakum” in an effort to drum up visitors.

How the crater will be extinguished remains to be seen, with Deutsche Welle reporting that Berdymukhamedov “previously ordered the flames be extinguished in 2010”.

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