The quest to extinguish the flames of the terrifying hearth of Turkmenistan’s ‘gates of hell’ | Smart News

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A popular tourist site, the Darvasa crater pit in Turkmenistan has been burning gas for more than 50 years. The country’s attempts to extinguish its flames have failed.

via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

For more than five decades, a huge pit of fire has been burning in Turkmenistan Karakum Desert, and country President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov wants to put an end to it, says Brandon Specktor for Live Science. On January 8, the leader appeared on a public television channel, urging officials to “find a solution to put out the fire” of the great burning crater known as the “Gates of Hell”.

“We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could obtain significant benefits and use them to improve the well-being of our people,” Berdymukhamedov said on the show, according to the France Media Agency (AFP).

It is unclear if a viable solution currently exists. Explorer Georges Kourounis, the first man to descend to the bottom of the pit in November 2013, says Sarah Durn of Dark Atlas that even seemingly logical fixes might prove futile.

“As I dug in the ground [at the bottom of the crater] to collect these soil samples, fire would start coming out of the hole I had just dug as it created new pathways for gas to exit the crater,” Kourounis explains. “So even if you were to put the fire out and cover it up, there’s a chance the gas could still come to the surface and all it would take is a spark to re-ignite it.”

Through Live Science, efforts to rein in the 230-foot-wide, 65-foot-deep inferno known as Darvaza Gas Crater have been ongoing since it was ignited in 1971. But Dark Atlas reports that the origins of the fire are unclear. Folk lore claims the crater was formed in 1971 following a Soviet natural gas accident when a drilling rig collapsed in the desert. The Soviets set the collapsed area on fire to burn off the methane, assuming the fire would only last a day or two. Local geologists, however, maintained that the crater formed in the late 1960s and did not ignite until the 1980s.

Part of the mystery surrounding the origins of the pit is helped by Turkmenistan’s isolation from the rest of the world. Considered the second most isolated country (behind North Korea), Turkmenistan welcomes less than 10,000 tourists a year, says Marek Grzegorczyk for Emerging Europe. Berdymukhamedov’s eccentric behavior is one of the few things known about the country. It is rapped on his horse, raised a golden bar in front of his cabinet, ordered the construction of a giant golden statue of a Turkmen shepherd dog and donuts executed in his rally car outside the Gates of Hell to dispel rumors of his death.

Although Berdymukhamedov says part of his reasoning for closing the pit comes from concern for the safety of nearby citizens, Gianluca Pardelli, the founder of Soviet Tours, tells Dark Atlas that he is skeptical of the president’s selfless claims. “There is no one nearby,” he says, saying he believes Berdymukhamedov ordered the nearest town razed to the ground because it looked impoverished.

Lilit Marcus for CNN reports that officials in Turkmenistan believe the closure has good environmental reasons, claiming it is a waste of natural resources; that the crater lets out methane gas, which is harmful to the atmosphere; and that the gas has negative health effects on nearby residents.

Previous efforts to extinguish the fire failed. According to AFP, the last attempt was in 2010, when Berdymukhamedov unsuccessfully asked experts to find a way to extinguish the flames.

Gates of Hell is undeniably leaking valuable and environmentally harmful methane into the atmosphere. The crater is “a polluting environment”, Stephane Green, a microbiologist, who accompanied Kourounis in 2013, says Dark Atlas.

Turkmenistan sits atop one of the the largest natural gas deposits in the world, and the resource is one of the main sources of income for the country. While it’s unclear how much methane is under the pit or if drilling underneath would even be possible, the longevity of the fire suggests the area could be a gold mine. The country currently holds the world number one fourth largest known reserve of natural gas.

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