For more than five decades, a massive pit of fire has been burning in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, and the country’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov wants to put an end to it, says Brandon Specktor for Live Science. On January 8, the leader appeared on a state-run TV channel, urging officials to “find a solution to extinguish the fire” of the large burning crater known as the “Gates of Hell.”
"We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people," says Berdymukhamedov during the program, per the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
It’s unclear whether a viable solution currently exists. Explorer George Kourounis, the first man to descend to the bottom of the pit in November 2013, tells Sarah Durn of Atlas Obscura that even seemingly logical fixes might prove futile.
“As I was digging into the ground [at the bottom of the crater] to gather these soil samples, fire would start coming out of the hole I just freshly dug because it was creating new paths for the gas to come out of the crater,” Kourounis says. “So even if you were to extinguish the fire and cover it up, there’s a chance that the gas could still find its way out to the surface and all it would take is one spark to light it up again.”
Per Live Science, efforts to curb the 230-foot-wide, 65-foot-deep inferno, known as the Darvaza Gas Crater, have been ongoing since it first ignited in 1971. But Atlas Obscura reports that the origins of the fire are unclear. Popular lore claims the crater formed in 1971 following a Soviet natural gas accident when a drilling rig collapsed into the desert. The Soviets lit the collapsed area on fire to burn off the methane, assuming the blaze would only last a day or two. Local geologists, however, have argued the crater was formed in the late 1960s and didn’t ignite until the 1980s.
Part of the mystery surrounding the pit’s origins is aided by Turkmenistan’s seclusion 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. He’s rapped about his horse, lifted a golden barbell in front of his cabinet, ordered construction of a giant golden statue of a Turkmen shepherd dog and performed doughnuts in his rally car in front of the Gates of Hell to dispel rumors about his death.
Though 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 Atlas Obscura that he’s skeptical about the president’s altruistic claims. “There is no one nearby,” he says, claiming he believes Berdymukhamedov ordered the closest town razed to the ground because it appeared impoverished.
Lilit Marcus for CNN reports that Turkmenistan officials believe there are good environmental reasons for the closure, stating that it’s a waste of natural resources; that the crater leaks methane gas, which is damaging to the atmosphere; and that the gas has negative health effects for nearby residents.
Previous efforts to quell the fire have failed. Per the AFP, the last attempt occurred in 2010, when Berdymukhamedov asked experts unsuccessfully 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,” Stefan Green, a microbiologist, who accompanied Kourounis in 2013, tells Atlas Obscura.
Turkmenistan sits atop one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world, and the resource is one of the country’s primary sources of revenue. Though it’s unclear how much methane is under the pit or whether drilling underneath it would even be possible, the fire’s longevity suggests the area could be a gold mine. The country currently holds the world’s fourth-largest known reserve of natural gas.