A gigantic fire has been burning for more than half a century in 80 metres diameter crater in the middle of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan. In 1971, Soviet engineers were searching for oil and met with a gigantic pocket of gas. To limit leaks, they set fire to it, creating the gateway to hell... They still don't know how to put it out. When you play sorcerer's apprentice...
For more than 50 years, the furnace dubbed the "Gates of Hell" has been burning relentlessly, fuelled by a gigantic pocket of natural gas. It is located in the Derweze (or Darvaza) crater in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan.
Soviet sorcerer's apprentices
There's nothing natural about its existence. In 1971, Soviet engineers thought that the subsoil of this desert had significant oil reserves, so they drilled a well. They didn't find any oil, but they did meet with a gigantic underground cavern filled with natural gas. When the drill reached the cavern, the ground collapsed along with the entire drilling platform. The gas pocket waś punctured and toxic methane fumes began to emanate from the hole and spread alarmingly.
In order to avoid an environmental catastrophe, the Soviet sorcerer's apprentices set fire to the gas thinking that it would stop burning a few weeks later when the pocket was exhausted. More than half a century later, it is still burning and the environmental disaster is continuing... Not least because the combustion is releasing a lot of sulphur.
No attempt to extinguish the inferno has succeeded, to the extent that the site has become a tourist attraction, the first in the country... It has to be said that it is spectacular (see photograph), especially at night, with a glowing crater 80 metres in diameter and 10 to 20 metres deep.
A leak that's very difficult to plug
But that hasn't stopped the Turkmenistan authorities from trying to extinguish it. It represents a real danger to the environment. And the gigantic reservoir of natural gas could be exploited instead of burning for nothing. Turkmenistan has the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, with no less than 19,500 billion m3. But its production is relatively low, at 59 billion m3 in 2020, and it would like to develop it.
What remains to be done is to find a way of putting out the inferno. One solution often put forward is to plug up the crater and fill it with a material that would prevent methane leaks. But many experts doubt that this is possible and that filling the crater will be enough to stop the leak. They believe that the best solution would in fact be to recover the gas from the reservoir, drilling one or more other wells beside and at the same time turn off the furnace, remove the gas from the crater and seal the breach while reducing the pressure on it. It's an operation that requires a great deal of expertise and considerable financial resources. For the moment, it is theoretical, even though the US government has offered to help Turkmenistan.