By: Amreet Dhillon
An eternally burning pit of fire sounds like it belongs in poems and dystopian novels, but there seems to be one in the Karakum desert near Darvaza, Turkmenistan as well. Its dramatic appearance and size has led to the gas crater being called ‘The Gates to Hell.’ This fire has been burning for the last fifty years! Just thinking about such a big crater of fire and knowing it has been that way for so many years, sets off alarm bells. The photos alone make me want to ask questions about how damaging this must be to the area surrounding. How is it affecting the air quality for anyone visiting or living there? Can the burning gasses can be useful somehow? The biggest question however is how has this nightmare been burning for this long without stopping. Will the fire ever stop?
How could this happen?
Simply put, this gas crater is not expected to stop burning any time soon. It was also not meant to stay lit for as long as it has. We don’t know when it will come to an end. It is believed that when the fire was first set in 1971, it was a way to deal with a soviet oil rig that had fallen into the crater. The oil rig had disturbed a huge pocket of gas. The ground beneath collapsed because of the disruption, and took the drilling down with it. After collapsing, methane and other natural gasses escaped into the air above faster than it was safe for such a reaction. Setting a fire was the only solution geologists at the time could come up with.
Methane as it is released can cause suffocation because it displaces oxygen. The lack of oxygen affected the animals in the Karakum Desert the quickest, killing them. The closest population of humans to the gas crater was in the village of Darvaza and none were killed. The effects it has on the environment as a whole could be compared to coal powered plants. Some burn just as many natural gasses as the crater, which makes it sound much less dramatic. However, even after knowing the reasoning, the fire still seems unnecessary and wasteful.
Using that extra energy
There have been questions about using the energy for something useful but nothing has been set in motion yet. The government of Turkmenistan has started looking into turning the site into a tourist attraction. Rather than hiding it, so far there are no restrictions set up around the hole. It is open to anyone to just walk right up to the edge. The actual size of the pit is massive, with a diameter of 70 meters and depth of around 30 meters. Which is why I assume, the lack of advertisement has certainly not stopped tourists from visiting before.
When will it end?
The origin of the pit is unclear and so is the exact amount of oil burning, or left to burn. Any questions about the fire are answered with the limited information available and most are quite unsatisfying. So we don’t know if this fire is truly eternal (it isn’t, but cool to think about) or whether it will be of use to Turkmenistan anytime soon. We do know it’s burning through natural gasses very quickly and why the fire was set off.
Hopefully, the fire will stop burning sometime in the near future. I think, because it has been burning for so long it is bound to come to an end in the next fifty years. If it doesn’t stop naturally we can hope to at least find a way to seal it or use the extra energy!