Environment, Science

Turkmenistan’s Fire Crater May Soon Be Put Out

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The Darvaza gas crater. This 2011 image is a compilation of three photos by Tormod Sandtorv (Flickr and Wikipedia).

Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia, near Afghanistan and Iran.

In Darvaza, one of its villages, there is a very interesting feature. It is a massive hole in the ground–about 20 metres (65 feet) deep and 60 metres (196 feet) across. And it is on fire.

The enormous pit has been on fire, blazing in the ground, for more than 50 years.

Why is the crater on fire? The most popular theory is that in 1971, a team of geologists from the then-Soviet Union (which included Turkmenistan) were drilling in the country’s Karakum Desert to try to find gas.

According to news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), the ground under the drill collapsed and methane gas began to escape into the air.

According to a BBC article (link below), Canadian explorer George Kourounis discovered in 2013 that “no one actually knows how this … inferno came to be.” According to the article, the crater opened up in the 1960s and was lit on fire in the 1980s.

It seems that the geologists decided the safest thing to do was to burn off the gas by lighting it on fire. They thought the fire would burn for only a few weeks. However, it has been burning steadily for more than 50 years.

Now, the crater may finally be put out (extinguished). Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (known as Arkadag or “Protector”), has asked scientists in the country to figure out how to put out the burning crater. He went on Turkemenistan’s state-run television station on January 8 to encourage experts to find a way to stop the fire.

One of the reasons he wants the crater to be put out is so the country can collect the gas that fuels it. Gas is a very important and valuable resource and can be used for many purposes. If it’s just burning off, the gas cannot be used or sold.

According to the website Vice.com, the crater sits on the fourth largest reserve of natural gas in the world.

Another reason Berdimuhamedow may want the crater put out is to stop the harmful effects, to humans and the environment, of the burning gas.

Note: This article was corrected on Jan. 12 to say that the crater is 60 metres across. It originally said 60 metres around.

THINK & DISCUSS

What else is Turkmenistan known for? Find 5 interesting things about Turkmenistan besides the crater.

The article mentions geologists. The suffix “ist” usually means, “an expert in.” What is a geologist an expert in? What are some other “ist” words and what is the expertise they describe?

The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. What was the Soviet Union? Turkmenistan is one country that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Name some others.

The crater has a nickname: The Gates of Hell. Why do you think that is its nickname? (Hint: Darvaza means “gate” according to Wikipedia.)

There is a mystery in this crater. Some say the Soviet government labelled the drilling expedition that created it as “top secret,” so its origins are not fully known. This article lists two possible scenarios. Can you uncover more information about how the burning crater began?

RELATED LINKS

CBC News article: https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/turkmenistan-gates-of-hell-gas-crater-1.6308566

National Geographic TV filmed a documentary (Die Trying: Crater of Fire) about the Turkmenistani crater. Information about the documentary is available here. The page also includes a somewhat bizarre 2-minute video of someone ziplining across the crater to get a closer look at its centre. Don’t try this at home, folks!: https://www.natgeotv.com/ca/die-trying

Another unusual video. In 2019, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow filmed himself driving around the burning crater. There had been rumours that the leader was dead and he wanted to prove he was in good health. He apparently also wanted to prove that the crater was safe:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-07/turkmenistan-president-rally-car-hells-gate-dispel-death-rumours/11392246

An interesting article on the website Turkemistan: Golden Age, founded by the State News Agency of Turkmenistan, about welcoming the New Year in Turkmenistan: https://turkmenistan.gov.tm/en/post/59886/epoch-people-arkadag-lit-upcoming-new-year-2022

Article on the LiveScience website: https://www.livescience.com/turkmenistan-gates-of-hell-finally-closed

A 2021 article by the BBC about the Darvaza crater: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210610-the-darvaza-crater-the-ussrs-top-secret-desert-mystery