What is the “Gate to Hell”, this fiery crater that Turkmenistan wants to put out?

The Darvaza gas crater, located in the Karakum desert, has been in continuous combustion since 1971 and has become the main tourist attraction of this former Soviet republic, which is one of the most closed countries in the world.

The crater is only 30 meters deep, but seems to lead straight to the bowels of the earth. 260  km north of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is one of the most frightening tourist attractions in the world: a burning gaping hole some  70 meters in diameter, in which gas has been burning continuously for several decades. The authoritarian president of this reclusive Central Asian country, Gurbanguly Berdymoukhamedov, ordered on Saturday (January 8th) to extinguish the flames which ignite the giant gas crater nicknamed the   Gateway to Hell “, reported state television. Objective: to take advantage of these natural resources. 

In view of these new statements, franceinfo has looked (well, not too closely) at this nightmarish phenomenon. 

A modern “legend”

No one knows exactly what caused the creation of this crater, formed in the middle of the Karakum desert. The most widely accepted account of it is that in  1971, Soviet scientists accidentally drilled into an underground pocket of gas while drilling for deposits. The ground would have subsided, creating the crater. Fearing that it would emit toxic gases, the authorities decided to set it on fire, believing that this would dry up the field in a few weeks, considerably underestimating the quantity of natural gas trapped – and in particular methane – in the floor. The crater would thus have been on fire for fifty years. 

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Canadian explorer George Kourounis, the first man to venture inside the crater in 2013 – dressed in a heat-resistant suit and attached to a Kevlar harness – gave National Geographic  another hypothesis. “What I’ve heard from Turkmen geologists, who have been there for decades, is that the collapse may have happened in the 1960s and the hole wasn’t lit until years 1980,” he explained. “I have no evidence to support these statements. I don’t know what really happened and there is no written record ,” said the adventurer, at the heart of a documentary. 

Few tourists venture to Turkmenistan, a former Soviet Union country that has become a totalitarian state, where opponents are silenced and the media controlled by the state. However, the few visitors do not fail to make a detour via this  “ Gate to Hell  . The site, which is particularly impressive, has even been highlighted by the president himself who, in the context of propaganda and the construction of his image as the strong man of the country, likes to make controlled skids on the edges of the precipice (at 37 seconds in the video below). 

An environmental nightmare

To justify putting out the fire in this gas crater, President Gurbangouly Berdymoukhamedov, considered that the flames had “a negative effect on the environment and the health of the neighboring populations “. If the nearest village, Darvaza, has only 350 souls, the nuisance is very real, explains Philippe Bousquet, researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences (LSCE) and methane specialist . “As it burns, the methane becomes CO2, but what is harmful for the direct environment is all that goes with it: there is probably also sulphur, odorous gases and aerosols which must also rise and can be harmful to people around,

Finally, from a climatic point of view this time, the damage caused by the “Gate to Hell” is indeed limited by the fire. ” Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2″, continues the climatologist .  “So if you have a deposit that is leaking massively, ‘flaring’ it [burning it]  so that this methane becomes CO2 remains ‘less worse’ than letting it escape as it is, explains  the specialist.  ‘less worse’, but that’s not ideal either: from a climate point of view, the best thing to do is to leave the natural gas in the ground and, whatever happens, prevent it from leaking out. But here, Turkmenistan’s objective is presumably to put out the fire to recover the natural gas so that it can be used, upgraded and sold.”

According to the IEA, the International Energy Agency (site in English), Tukmenistan is also the fifth largest emitter of methane in the world. It emits more than China for a population of only 6 million. Huge emissions partly attributed to leaks, like this one, revealed this Bloomberg investigation published in October. However, methane is much more harmful than CO2 in terms of global warming. Thus, fighting against its emissions is a considerable lever in the fight against the announced rise in temperatures.

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An untapped but polluting financial windfall

“We are wasting valuable natural resources for which we could receive earnings” and which could “increase the well-being of our people ,” Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told state television. Because the Turkmens are indeed sitting on a deposit of natural gas of considerable value. In 2021 alone, Russia doubled its gas imports from Turkmenistan.  According to the  Turkmen president, China imports about 40 billion a year, but it could reach 100 billion cubic meters in the future.

Thus, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,  “extinguishing this deposit and – provided that it is possible – recovering it into natural gas, would be the same as burning it as is the case today. The difference is that it would at least be used to produce electricity  or heat”,  decrypts Philippe Bousquet. However, this natural gas remains a fossil fuel. How, when the Paris agreement calls for a considerable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, justify the future exploitation of this deposit? “A modern gas-fired power plant emits about half as much as a typical power plantcoal. It still emits too much and it would be better to use other non-emitting or less emitting energies, but let’s say that, here again, it’s ‘less worse'”,  specifies Philippe Bousquet.

“The maximum quantity of CO2 equivalent that we can emit if we do not want to exceed the 2°C increase with a good chance has been estimated by the scientific community, and we know that we will have to leave a good part of the fossil resources available in the ground if we want to achieve this. Unfortunately, some countries will continue to extract and use these resources for a long time for their development, such as coal or natural gas, which they have in very large quantities” , explains the specialist. “In Europe, we therefore consider natural gas as a transition energy. It is clearly an energy that emits greenhouse gases. Accepting compromises in these complex geopolitical systems allows us to move forward, slowly of course, notes the climatologist. 

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Mohamed SAKHRI

I am Mohamed SAKHRI, the creator and editor-in-chief of this blog, 'Discover the World – The Blog for Curious Travelers.' Join me as we embark on a journey around the world, uncovering beautiful places, diverse cultures, and captivating stories. Additionally, we will delve into mysterious and, at times, even bizarre destinations.

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