In the middle of the desert in northern Turkmenistan, a gigantic crater has been burning off methane for decades. The Derweze crater, more commonly known as the “Door to Hell,” has attracted tourists and researchers for years. Records on the crater are sparse, but the pit is said to be the result of a drilling mishap in 1971.
The pit measures approximately 230 feet wide and 100 feet deep. Looking in from the crater’s edge, the hole really does give the impression that one is looking at hell on earth. Rocks appear to be on fire as flaming gas shoots out from the ground. From the edge of the pit the blaze sounds like a jet engine.
Just like our previous article, “Shaking hands with the devil: the deepest hole ever drilled“, this site is also said to be the result of a Soviet drilling expedition. Soviet scientists and engineers are said to have been drilling for oil when they breached into an underground cavern and the ground beneath them collapsed. Both the drilling rig and work camp nearby were swallowed into a sinkhole.
Although no one died in the accident, the hole was then leaking natural gas. Rather than let the potentially poisonous gas leak out, the Soviets decided to light it on fire. Instead of eventually burning out as they expected, the pit became a giant eternal flame.
Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ordered crater to be filled in after he visited the burning hole in 2010, but so far the pit remains. The country has begun to embrace the crater since recent international attention has brought scientists and tourists to the area.
Watch a video of the Door to Hell here:
National Geographic recently featured the crater on its program Die Trying. In the episode, George Kourounis was lowered into the middle of the pit wearing a heat-resistant suit to collect samples to determine if the crater could support life. Since the pit had been burning for years, the pit was an ideal spot to test for microorganisms that can live in extreme conditions. Kourounis descibed the experience:
When you first set eyes on the crater, it’s like something out of a science fiction film. You’ve got this vast, sprawling desert with almost nothing there, and then there’s this gaping, burning pit … The heat coming off of it is scorching. The shimmer from the distortion of it warping the air around it is just amazing to watch, and when you’re downwind, you get this blast of heat that is so intense that you can’t even look straight into the wind.
The soil samples collected by Kourounis at the bottom of the crater came back testing positive for life. A small amount of bacteria was managing to survive in the severe heat within the crater. The results of the testing provide valuable insight about the possibilities for life in extreme conditions both on earth and other plantets.
This video shows the crater just as the sun is setting:
Turkmenistan contains a vast amount of natural gas reserves. It ranks as the fourth-largest holder of natural gas worldwide.