Our planet is a mysterious yet amazing place. There are places that are breathtakingly beautiful and then there are places that can unleash hell itself. Deep within the expansive plains of Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert is a jaw-dropping phenomenon that keeps defying expectations. Locals call it the “door to hell” and it’s not hard to see why. In the hot Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, near the 350-person village of Darvaza, lies a hole 230 feet wide. It’s so bright at night that the crater’s light can be seen from miles around.
Soviet geologists initially came across the site in 1971 and believed it was rich in oil.
In 1971, Soviet geologists in search of oil stumbled upon this spot. Thinking that it would be rich with oil, they set up camps and drilling rigs nearby. However, when they learned that the land was rather rich with precious gases, they were pleased with their findings and started an excavation to store the gases.
As drilling progressed, the ground beneath the drill site collapsed; taking in the rigs with it. The crater was 69 meters wide, 30 meters deep, and was spewing toxic methane gas, a potential danger to the nearby Turkmenistan villages.
After finding the large amounts of gas being released into the atmosphere that was threatening the nearby villagers, scientists decided to light it; hoping to burn off the poisonous gases.
Scientists concluded that the most efficient way to solve the problem would be to burn off the poisonous gases. They hoped that by doing so, the gases would burn off within days. Sadly for them, the flames have been alive for 48 years. Nicknamed the “Gates of Hell” or “Darvaza gas crater”, by locals, the flames haven’t stopped burning since.
The natural, flammable, gas continues to seep into the crater at, what NASA’s Earth Observatory describes as, “a significant rate”. Methane, an odorless and transparent gas, is found both above the Earth’s surface and below it. It can bubble up from swamps, leak from oil wells, be ‘released’ by cows, and rise up from sewage treatment plants.
Much of Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas and there is little understanding on how long it will continue to burn.
Today, hundreds of tourists flock to visit the Door To Hell every year, more than four decades after it was created. The volume of methane released from the Darvaza gas crater is about the same as the amount that goes into a large gas-fired power plant. In 2010, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, ordered that the hole be closed, but that didn’t happen.
In 2013, National Geographic explorer and storm chaser George Kouronis used a heat-reflective suit and a Kevlar climbing harness to become the first person to go on an expedition inside the “Gates of Hell”. The Canadian adventurer described it as: “Just everywhere you look it’s thousands of these small fires. The sound was like that of a jet engine, this roaring, high-pressure, gas-burning sound,” he says. “And there was no smoke. It burns very cleanly, so there’s nothing to obscure your view. You can just see every little lick of flame”.
“When you first set eyes on the crater, it’s like something out of a science fiction film. You’ve got this vast, sprawling desert with almost nothing there, and then there’s this gaping, burning pit… The heat coming off of it is scorching. The shimmer from the distortion of it warping the air around it is just amazing to watch, and when you’re downwind, you get this blast of heat that is so intense that you can’t even look straight into the wind.”
During his journey down the “Gates of Hell”, Kouronis collected soil samples at the bottom of the crater. Scientific analysis of the samples revealed that heat resistant bacteria thrived inside the burning crater.
These weren’t just any bacteria — they were extremely heat-resistant species that were not present in the samples of soil collected just outside of the crater. This proves that life can thrive even in the most intense of situations. The Darvaza crater could become a window to understanding how organisms can survive in space.