Will Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell” Open a Door for Science?
The Darvaza Crater, an infernal pit burning in Turkmenistan’s forbidding Karakum Desert, has long piqued the curiosity of the few tourists who make it into the totalitarian country. Now it turns out that the famous furnace – the product of a search for natural gas gone horribly wrong – could be an untapped store of knowledge for mankind.
Being the product of an accident, the “Door to Hell” is perhaps not what the image-conscious dictator of gas-rich Turkmenistan wants his country to be known for, but it has been getting a lot of attention lately.
Recently it attracted one explorer who likes to live on the edge. According to a July 16 story by National Geographic, last November “explorer and storm chaser” George Kourounis became the first person to descend into the bottom of the 99-foot-deep fiery pit, where he collected soil samples.
The history of the hotspot is somewhat contested, but most agree that the hole was the result of a Soviet gas expedition. As a Turkmen geologist told the AFP last month:
Soviet geologists started drilling a borehole to prospect for gas at this spot in 1971. The boring equipment suddenly drilled through into an underground cavern, and a deep sinkhole formed. The equipment tumbled through but fortunately no one was killed. Fearing that the crater would emit poisonous gases, the scientists took the decision to set it alight, thinking that the gas would burn out quickly and this would cause the flames to go out.
Decades later, the hole is still burning bright, which makes Kourounis’ decision to conduct research inside it unusual. He described his jump into hell:
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 mission was not just a jaunt. Kourounis ultimately wants to understand what life forms have survived in the crater and, as a result, whether life “could survive similar conditions elsewhere in the universe.”
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.