Turkmenistan is one of the old constituent republics of the Soviet Union. Located on the northern border of Iran, the country holds within its borders the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. In 1971, a group of Soviet geologists drilled into a large cavern of natural gas, while searching for oil and gas in the Karakum Desert in the center of the country. The cavern collapsed, swallowing the drilling rig and leaving behind a gaping, 70 meter wide crater. To make matters worse, this massive hole seeped large quantities of methane and other dangerous gases into the atmosphere. While not toxic in and of itself, methane is an asphyxiant and it can become highly explosive when mixed with air. Additionally, the impact of methane on climate change is approximately 20 times that of carbon dioxide. While the Soviet scientists may or may not have been concerned with the environmental effects of leaving the crater unchecked, the seeping gases certainly posed a more imminent threat to the neighboring village of Darvaza and anyone who might happen to pass through the area. Thus, the decision was made to light the gases on fire, in the hope that they would be depleted in no more than a few days.
42 years later, the crater is still burning. It has been dubbed as ‘The Door to Hell’ by the local population and is, perhaps, the most interesting example of flaring you could ever choose to explore as a tourist. Not that a lot of people do, mind you, as Turkmenistan recently placed seventh on a list of the least visited countries in the world. However, the Turkmen government is placing an ever increasing emphasis on developing tourism, as it strives to erase the somewhat negative global perception of the country, that developed during the reign of the eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov. Thus, effectively ‘putting out’ one of the country’s main tourist destinations might not seem like such a bright idea. At the same time, Turkmenistan will look to maintain its recent economic growth through the continued development of its natural gas and oil industries, and keeping the Darvaza fires burning might not fit so well into that picture. In fact, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ordered that the crater be closed back in 2010, in order to limit its effect on the utilization of natural gas resources in the area. As of March 2013, ‘The Door to Hell’ is still open, however, and the future of the site remains to be determined.
Should the site be kept open in favor of the growing tourism industry or should the crater be closed? Is there perhaps another, less obvious option? Please pitch in with your thoughts and opinions.