The Derweze Firepit: Turkmenistan’s “Gateway to Hell”

Near the tiny village of Derweze, Turkmenistan, is a huge open firepit, burning 24 hours a day, that the local residents call “The Gateway to Hell”–and are hoping to turn into a tourist attraction.

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The Derweze Gateway to Hell

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was a part of the USSR. Located far from the centers of Soviet economic and political power, the province was mostly ignored by Moscow.

But in 1971, the Soviet government sent a team to the inhospitable Karakum Desert region of Turkmenistan to search for natural gas. One spot, about four miles away from the tiny village of Derweze, looked particularly promising, and Soviet geologists decided to drill a test well. It revealed a huge deposit. But before a production well could be drilled, disaster struck: the drilling camp was located over a large underground cavity, like a sinkhole, and the thin crust at the surface broke and collapsed, leaving a gaping crater 230 feet wide and 65 feet deep. And, it quickly became apparent, the cracks inside the crater were leaking large amounts of toxic and explosive methane gas.

Since the methane posed a potential hazard to the 250 residents of the village of Derweze, the Soviets debated for a time about what to do, in the end deciding that it would be quickest and safest to ignite the methane and let the gas burn itself out. So a Russian geologist tossed a live hand grenade over the edge of the crater and ran.

Within minutes, the entire crater was aflame as the escaping methane burned like a huge natural gas stove. The Soviet geologists had assumed that the methane supply would burn itself up in a few days. They were enormously wrong. The open flames continued to burn for weeks, then months, then years, as natural gas continued to seep out from underground and ignite. In 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, the Derweze pit was still on fire–and it still burns today, 44 years after it started. Since “Derweze” means “gateway” in the local language, the flaming crater became known as “The Gateway to Hell”.

After Turkmenistan’s independence from the now-collapsed USSR, the new government in the city of Ashgabat found that the only workable basis they had available for a national economy was the extraction and sale of the country’s vast natural gas reserves in the Karakum Desert, estimated at hundreds of trillions of cubic feet. By 2010, Turkmenistan was sending over a trillion cubic feet a year to Russia, China, Europe, Iran, India and Pakistan. Turkmenistan President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made plans to increase production to over 8 trillion cubic feet a year by 2030. After visiting the Derweze site, he worried that the Gateway to Hell was burning off valuable natural gas that the country needed for its economy, and ordered that the pit be filled in with sand to smother the fire and put it out.

In reality, the amount of gas being burned in the Pit is minimal compared to the huge underground reserves known to exist, and in any case it was simply impossible to seal over the Pit out in the empty desert, so it was once again simply allowed to burn. But by now, the Turkmenistan government realized that the Gateway to Hell could serve another purpose: as word spread about the spectacular flaming crater in the middle of the desert, tourists from Europe, Iran, and the United States began to arrive, and the little village of Derweze, now with 350 residents, became a travel mecca of sorts. Today, of the 10,000 or so visitors to Turkmenistan each year, several hundred brave the 160-mile trip from Ashgabat, the 120-degree heat in the Karakum Desert, and the danger (the crater rim is unstable and new collapses are not uncommon) to see the Pit at Derweze. The Ministry of Tourism formed a 90,000-hectare nature preserve in the Desert, including the Pit, and is now planning new roads and infrastructure to increase eco-tourism and, it is hoped, establish another industry to bring some foreign cash into the poverty-stricken area.

In 2014, the host of the National Geographic cable TV show “Die Trying”, George Kourounis, successfully made his way to the floor of the Pit, and found heat-loving extremophile bacteria living in the boiling mud.

The Gateway to Hell, meanwhile, continues to burn. No one knows how much longer the methane leak will last.

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