Most of the world’s fuel takes the form of fossil fuels. These fuels are the remains of ancient plant matter that has been compressed under immense pressures for millions of years. Whether it’s oil, coal, or natural gas, we are burning the remains of long dead creatures to heat our homes and fuel our commutes. Extracting these energy sources is a dangerous business though. Centralia became a ghost town after an underground fire made it unlivable.
There is a more spectacular underground fire than the one that killed Centralia, though. In 1971, Soviet geologists were drilling a natural gas well in Turkmenistan, near the village of Derweze. The Karakum Desert, which covers most of the country, is rich with natural gas deposits deep underground. It should have been a routine drill, but something unexpected happened; they drilled into an open cavern filled with natural gas. The weight of the drill rig above on the now weakened cavern ceiling caused a horrific collapse. Luckily, no one was killed, but the geologists had a problem in the form of a 70m diameter hole in the ground that was leaking natural gas and poisonous gasses. Hoping to stop the leak, the scientists lit a fire, fully expecting it to burn out within a few days. More than forty years later, the blaze is still burning strong. Locals have dubbed the open pit “the Door to Hell.”
The Door to Hell has become something of a tourist attraction in the country of Turkmenistan, which is not exactly known as a tourist mecca. Still, the runaway fire burns off several tons of natural gas a day, and it prevents drilling in the area. The president of Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, visited the site in 2010 and ordered local authorities to figure out a way to seal the hole or stop the fire. Turkmenistan is seeking to leverage its natural gas resources to become a player in the regional energy market, and exploiting the rich gas wells around Derweze would go a long way toward helping that goal. Four years later, no workable plans to snuff out the fire have been presented. The Doorway to Hell is still wide open.
Gurt, Murat. “Turkmen President Wants to Close ‘Hell’s Gate.'” Reuters.com April 20, 2010. Reuters. June 1, 2014
Preece, Rob. “The Door to Hell: Take a look inside a giant hole in the desert which has been on fire for more than 40 years.” DailyMail.co.uk. July 26, 2012. The Daily Mail. June 1, 2014.