There are many places around the world that locals have branded the “gate to hell”. One of the most dramatic examples is the Darvaza (Derweze) crater in the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan.

There is nothing else around here, the landscape is barren. There is just a “gaping burning pit” in the middle of nowhere. The 230 ft wide, 66 ft deep hole is ablaze with flickering flames fed by underground natural gas. It’s like a gigantic gas fireplace, releasing heat and dangerous fumes making the surrounding air shimmer and reek of sulfur.

Darvaza gas crater was created in the 1950s when a Soviet gas drilling rig fell into an underground cavern. The crater was set on fire shortly afterwards and has been burning ever since. (NatGeo)

The formation of the pit is mysterious. There are no records from when the area was explored by Soviet geologists in the 1950s. The most repeated story is that “geologists accidentally opened the door to hell” when a drilling rig collapsed into the sinkhole creating the crater. It’s unclear if this happened in the 60s or later in 1971. Two other craters are nearby but they are full of bubbling mud. This crater, however, was destined for greatness:

The site was identified by Soviet scientists in 1971. It was thought to be a substantial oil field site. The scientists set up a drilling rig and camp nearby, and started drilling operations to assess the quantity of gas reserve available at the site. As the Soviets were pleased with the success of finding the gas resources, they started storing the gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig and camp collapsed into a wide crater and disappeared. No lives were lost in the incident. However, large quantities of methane gas were released, creating an environmental problem and posing a potential danger to the people of the nearby villages. Fearing the release of further poisonous gases from the cavern, the scientists decided to burn it off. They thought that it would be safer to burn it than to extract it from underground through expensive methods. Environmentally, gas firing is the next best solution when the circumstances are such that it cannot be extracted for use. At that time, expectations were that the gas would burn within days, but it is still burning, more than four decades after it was set on fire. [Source]

Researchers were likely aware of the huge methane store underground. It’s unclear why they assumed it would burn out in just a few days.

In 2013, National Geographic co-sponsored researcher George Kouronis to enter the pit and take samples. He described the location as unique and “visually stunning”. Over the pit in a pulley system and Kevlar suit, he discovered that the roaring, smokeless, “coliseum of fire” contained a specific bacterial microsystem not found in the surrounding soil.

The government of Turkmenistan had plans to fill in the hole and quench the fire to aid in further resource exploration. But the pit has become a tourist attraction thanks to the Internet and features by Atlas Obscura and Lonely Planet for very adventurous travelers. It’s not easy to get there. There are no amenities on site. The site is best viewed at night but breathing the emissions around the crater for too long will make you sick.

It seems like the Darvaza crater has earned its title as one of the creepiest places on earth.

May 2022: Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov proposed to find a way to extinguish the crater fire and stop the loss of the gas resources just burning away. He would rather the gas be tapped and used instead of serving as the “gate to hell” tourist attraction. The methane released is a pollution source but the fix may be very difficult. No funds or plans to close the pit have been proposed.

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