Turkmenistan’s “Gateway to Hell” has been furiously blazing for over 50 years, but now the nation’s authoritarian leader has reportedly ordered it to be extinguished. How exactly this will be done, however, is still to be determined.
Also known as the Darvaza gas crater, the striking inferno in the Karakum Desert is thought to have emerged in the early 1970s when the ground above a cavern collapsed during a Soviet fossil fuel drilling accident. Realizing they had just opened up a pocket of natural gas, the engineers took the bold decision to burn off the fuel, expecting the fire to burn for a few weeks or so. Fifty years on, the 69 meters (226 feet) wide, 30 meters (98 feet) deep pit is still burning bright.
Its days may now be numbered – in a televised address on Saturday, January 10, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told officials to extinguish the fire, according to AFP. Along with the potential harm the fires could bring to local people and the surrounding environment, the president cited economic concerns. After all, Turkmenistan has one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world but lacks the infrastructure to fully utilize it.
"[The crater] negatively affects both the environment and the health of the people living nearby," he said in televised remarks.
"We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people,” President Berdymukhamedov added.
However, it’s uncertain how the pit will be extinguished. Back in 2010, Berdymukhamedov ordered experts to find a way to put out the flames, but no apparent progress has been made.
The Gateway to Hell has become a tourist spectacle in recent years, although the country isn’t generally considered a hotspot for travelers. The gas crater was even used as the backdrop for an outlandish government film where President Berdymukhamedov sped around the crater in a rally car to prove to his citizens he wasn’t dead.
Just like many facets of Turkmenistan, details on the Darvaza gas crater are very thin on the ground, not least because of the authority's extremely tight control on public life. Human Rights Watch describes Turkmenistan as an “extremely repressive country” with a government that “severely restricts all fundamental rights and freedoms.”