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article imageSoviet scientists open the 'Door to Hell'

By Karen Graham     May 22, 2014 in Science
Fed by one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, the Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan is fittingly called "The Door to Hell" by locals. Aptly named, flames and the pungent odor of sulfur permeate the area.
Throughout our history, there have been many places, often found in areas of unusual geologic activity, that were reputed to be the entrance to the underworld. To gain entry into the "netherworld" mortals had to enter through a frightening and fiery portal, the "Gates of Hell."
Volcanic eruptions  such as this one in the Kamoamoa fissure eruption in Kilauea  Hawaii were often ...
Volcanic eruptions, such as this one in the Kamoamoa fissure eruption in Kilauea, Hawaii were often thought to be portals to the underworld.
USGS
But despite the many naturally occurring entrances to Hades found around the world, and there are a lot of volcanoes and other "hot" spots, it is not often that a gate to the underworld is man-made. Such is the case of the huge crater of burning methane gas in the Karakum Desert.
Sometimes our best efforts will lead to disaster, regardless of all our good intentions. This is exactly what happened in 1971, when Turkmenistan was still part of the Soviet Union. A team of Soviet scientists were looking for oil fields in Karakum, and they thought they had stumbled on a substantial oil field, so they erected a platform and began drilling.
Oil drilling rigs are heavy  as can be seen in this photo taken on August 18  2011 of the raising of...
Oil drilling rigs are heavy, as can be seen in this photo taken on August 18, 2011 of the raising of the stern of a Bakken oil derrick.
Joshua Doubek
What the scientists didn't know was that their oil field was actually a very large pocket of natural gas which could not support the weight of the drilling platform and other equipment. The whole site collapsed, taking everything with it. The collapse triggered the crumbling of the sedimentary rock surrounding the site, creating a "domino effect" that caused the ground to collapse in other places.
The scientists were left with several craters, and luckily, no casualties. The largest of the craters measured 230-feet and was 65-feet deep. At its bottom lay the remains of the platform. The scientists realized they had an even bigger problem on their hands, the natural gas escaping from the crater.
Natural gas is a hydrocarbon gas mixture that is primarily methane gas, along with varying amounts of other gases. Methane is odorless and dissipates into the atmosphere over a period of around 10 years. Because methane displaces oxygen, and with so much of the gas seeping from the crater, scientists were concerned about desert creatures nearby not being able to breathe.
The Door to Hell (in the nighttime) / Turkmenistan  Darvaza.
The Door to Hell (in the nighttime) / Turkmenistan, Darvaza.
Stefen Krasowski
They realized there could be a problem with flammability of the methane gas. There needs to be just five percent methane in the air for it to potentially explode. It was decided to set the crater on fire with the hope it would burn itself out in a few weeks. It was considered a good move at the time. After all, it's done frequently in oil-drilling operations in a process called "flaring."
But where flaring is used when a known amount of natural gas is burned off, the Soviet scientists had no idea how much natural gas was underneath them. So what was supposed to be a fire that lasted a few weeks has turned into the "Fire from Hell," and it has burned for over 40 years.
Crater as seen in the daylight.
Crater as seen in the daylight.
Stefen Krasowski
In 2010, Turkmenistan's president Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, worried that the burning crater of gas would threaten the country's ability to develop oil fields in the area, ordered local officials to come up with a plan to cover up the crater. To date, nothing has been done, and the crater continues to attract unsuspecting wildlife and hundreds of international tourists every year.
More about Turkmenistan, gates of hell, soviet geologists, Oil field, Methane gas
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