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Closing Turkmenistan’s mysterious Gates of Hell

Turkmenistan’s President Berdymukhamedov demands the fire burning in the country’s desert be put out

Deep in the Turkmenistan desert, a crater has burned for decades. Called the Gates of Hell, the huge flaming pit nestled in dry sands is one of the most striking and mysterious sites on earth. 

The Darvaza crater is believed to have been the consequence of a natural gas drilling operation accident, where the ground collapsed into a void under the Karakum desert. 

Despite having an isolated dictatorship hostile to outsiders ruling the country, Turkmenistan has a history of marketing the country’s bizarre spectacle to tourists, like a 246 foot tower in the capital Ashgabat dedicated to geopolitical neutrality. Or a gigantic, rotating golden statue of the country’s former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov. And a newer, 16-foot statue of the current president’s favorite dog breed (The Alabay, a Turkmen variety of the Central Asian shepherd dog).

The statue of the Alabay, the Central Asian shepherd dog in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Putting tourism aside, last week President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ordered the Gates of Hell to be extinguished. He had abruptly given the same command in 2010, without stating any clear reasons, but it was never completed.

Berdymukhamedov is known for puzzling initiatives like fumigating public spaces with smoke from an indigenous grass to protect against Covid. He has said that he wanted the pit extinguished because it’s a waste of profitable resources and it adversely affects the health of people living nearby and damages the environment.

But closing the Darvaza crater would have negligible mitigation for Turkmenistan’s emissions problem. Rich in oil and gas resources, the country is one of the top emitters of methane, the largest component of natural gas and is significantly more detrimental to the environment than carbon dioxide. Methane leaks can be reduced with the help of regulations and infrastructure, and over a hundred countries made cut-down pledges at COP26, the climate conference last year in Glasgow. Turkmenistan’s had only made vague promises at COP26. 

In the past couple years, Turkmenistan has been on the radar of energy data analytics organizations like Kayrros or International Energy Agency, as methane footprint awareness evolved to become a top climate concern. But the contribution of the Gates of Hell to the problem does not rank among the chief causes of the country’s methane crisis.

“It’s actually a tourist attraction. I don’t think it can be considered the main cause of Turkmenistan’s emissions. If you want to reduce methane emissions in Turkmenistan, it’s probably not the place you want to start,” said Antoine Halff, chief analyst at Kayrros. “I think there’s a lot of scrutiny over emissions from Turkmenistan and this looks like an attempt by the government to be proactive about emissions.”

The statue of the first Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov on top of the Monument of Neutrality. Photo: Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Darvaza crater, in fact, draws many adventurers’ interest.

“If you’d never seen this place before and were asked to draw a picture of a hole in the ground as a doorway to hell, this is exactly what it would look like,” said George Kourounis, a professional explorer and the only man known to ever go down in the pit. “I’ve described it as being in a coliseum of fire.”

If the reasons why the president of Turkmenistan wants to extinguish the fiery pit right now is open to speculation, so is how it became a burning hole in the ground in the first place. The most widely circulated theory is that in 1971 geologists ignited the hole, hoping to burn off seeping dangerous methane over a few days. 

But Kourounis says the Turkmen geologists that accompanied his expedition had a slightly different memory. 

“They tell me that the crater bubbled with mud and gas for years and that the mud actually overflowed the top of the crater and spilled into the surrounding desert and didn’t catch fire until the 1980s.” 

Kourounis says nobody in the country knows what happened either. “I tried to get any kind of official reports, something on paper, but you know, it was the Soviet era, it was either classified or destroyed, or maybe no good records were taken. So I don’t have any proof other than what we witnessed ourselves and the testimony from two geologists on the scene.”

Extinguishing the burning hole won’t be a straightforward task, according to Giuseppe Etiope, a geologist and researcher at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy and the author of book called Natural Gas Seepage: The Earth’s Hydrocarbon Degassing.

Etiope said the accident seems to have exposed an accumulation of gas, or a gas pocket, below the surface, opening a Pandora’s Box. Closing it would require a comprehensive geological and geophysical study of not only the crater but the whole area.

“The Pandora’s Box is not only the shallower gas pocket, but is all the sequence of the pockets below that are probably connected,” he told me.

Long-term burning craters are not a new phenomenon tied to the petroleum industry. These “eternal fires” relegated as tourist attractions have had a special role in ancient cultures, driving mythological legends, religious traditions, and contributing to human civilization. Like the burning Baba Gurgur in Iraq, or eternal fires in Iran and Azerbaijan, like the Yanardag, worshiped by Zoroastrians.

Besides attempting to turn the Gates to Hell into a tourist attraction, Berdymukhamedov also gained attention for the site when, after months of rumors that he was dead, he appeared on a state-owned TV channel in a video, driving around the fire pit doing doughnuts.

Since November, the government has banned Turkmen from visiting the pit without special permission. And although the ban has not applied to foreign tourists, it appears Berdymukhamedov hasn’t welcomed them to visit the pit either.

It’s doubtful that the plan to close the Gates of Hell will succeed, according to Stefan Green, a microbiologist that accompanied Kourounis on his Darvaza expedition and gathered soil samples from the crater. 

The president “is certainly right that the crater is pretty bad for the environment. But it is better off burning than as an uncontrolled methane release. Methane is a terrible greenhouse gas, much worse than CO2. Better to burn it than to let it go into the atmosphere as methane,” he said. 

According to Green, the right solution would not be inexpensive: “You could put out the fire easily but that would create an explosion hazard. It needs careful engineering. My guess is that they decide it isn’t worth the effort.”

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