Will the ‘Gates of Hell’ crater ever die out in this remote desert?
Rain doesn’t often fall there, but even when it does it’s unable to put out this everlasting fire. AccuWeather spoke to the only person to have climbed down into the crater even as it grows more dangerous.
The Darvaza flaming gas crater with people standing near the edge. (AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin)
For more than 50 years, the glow of the blazing "Gates of Hell" inferno, formally known as the Darvaza gas crater, has illuminated the skies of the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, yet it remains a mystery to most.
Canadian-born scientific explorer George Kourounis, the only person to have descended into the center of the fiery pit, told AccuWeather that the Gates of Hell "is one of the most interesting places on Earth."
"It almost looks like a volcano out in the middle of the desert," he said.
But now its fate may be sealed. The decades-old fiery sight that has become a popular draw for the few tourists who dare to venture to that remote part of the Central Asian country may soon be squelched forever.
The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, said he believes the massive molten pit is “negatively” impacting the health of the people living in the area and the environment and wants it extinguished, according to a report by The Associated Press. The president, himself known to be captivated by the sight and even seen on state TV in 2019 speeding around the pit in an off-road vehicle, has asked his government to find ways to safely put out the flames once and for all.
Measuring 230 feet wide and 100 feet deep, the crater was formed when a drilling rig collapsed into a sinkhole in 1971, leaking methane while prospectors were on the hunt for natural gas. At some point it caught fire, although Kourounis said no one knows for sure if the blaze was set intentionally or not, and it has remained on fire ever since, for half a century.
One theory is that geologists supposedly lit one of three large sinkholes created by the accident on fire to burn off the escaping methane so it would not spread into the atmosphere. But local experts believe the crater may have formed somehow in the 1960s and was lit two decades later.
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alan Reppert said the weather would not have worked as a natural extinguisher for the flames.
"The crater is underground and big enough that the weather would really have no effect on it," Reppert said.
Reppert said the temperature reaches triple digits for the better part of the year in the Turkmenistan Desert, and rain seldom falls there. Even in the rare event that it does rain in the parched desert, the rain has not put out the fiery crater. According to Kournounis, due to the extreme heat of the crater, the rare rain does not even hit the crater itself, rather it falls in the surrounding area. Any rain falling directly down to the crater evaporates from the extremely high temperatures.
Kourounis led an expedition for National Geographic to take soil samples at the bottom in 2013.
"The idea was to look to find out if there was any kind of bacteria that were living in this really extreme environment," he said. "There are planets outside of our solar system that have hot, methane-rich environments. So, if we could find even microscopic bacteria living in this crater, it could give us clues as to where we might want to look for life on other planets."
Kourounis said the expedition was a "complete success," as he found bacteria living at the bottom that was not previously listed in the DNA database -- meaning he had discovered new life inside the Gates of Hell.
Some of the lifeforms discovered were metabolizing the methane gas present in the crater, relying on a process known as chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis, so they received their energy from the methane gas rather than the sun.
"These are really extreme forms of life, they thrive in places that anything else would find completely, totally fatal," he said.
Silhouette of an expedition member enjoying the view of the Darvaza flaming gas crater at night. (Photo/George Kourounis)
Considering the extremely dry conditions of the hot crater in the middle of the desert, the people on the National Geographic team were not sure if they would find bacteria, which is usually present in wet environments. Their findings have now opened the doors for future discoveries, particularly on other planets.
"What we learned is that it is possible for microscopic life to survive and even thrive in these really extreme conditions," Kourounis said. "So now, moving forward, when we send probes to other planets outside of our solar system into deep space years from now, maybe even decades from now, we have an idea of the places where we should look."
Even though he believes it will not be in his lifetime that life is found on other planets, Kourounis said the experience in the crater was as close as he could get to "being on another planet."
While the preparations for the expedition took two years, Kourounis, who describes himself as "a global explorer, adventurer and storm chaser," had just 17 minutes to spend at the bottom to collect soil samples and conduct temperature readings.
Darvaza, Turkmenistan Expedition EC0649-13 - George Kourounis, dressed in a heat-resistant aluminum suit, tests the temperatures at the edge of the Darvaza flaming gas crater. (Photo/George Kourounis)
He and others on the expedition team quickly learned that the crater functions like a convection oven, meaning colder air sinks to the bottom in the center and heats up at the bottom from the fire, allowing the hotter air to then rise along the sides. Standing even on the edge at the top felt like being dry roasted, Kourounis said.
The jets of fire sounds like the roar of an airplane engine, rather than a crackling campfire.
The hottest temperature Kourounis was able to measure while in the crater was over 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prior to even entering the country, Kourounis practiced the maneuvers he would need to do for the exhibition while in his home country of Canada, and even went as far as lighting himself on fire -- twice.
"I actually hired a stunt man to light me on fire like you'd see in a Hollywood action movie," Kourounis said. "That was so I could get used to the idea of being in close proximity to fire without panicking, because I know the last place in the world I want to start panicking is in the bottom of a crater in the desert in Turkmenistan."
For two intervals of 30 seconds, he was completely on fire from head to toe, which he described as "an intense experience."
Darvaza, Turkmenistan Expedition EC0649-13 - Colorful sunrise at the Darvaza flaming gas crater. (Photo/George Kourounis)
Despite the harsh weather conditions, the crater has created what Kourounis called a "unique ecosystem that's not found at any other place on Earth."
"At night, we'd be camped outside the crater and there would be flocks of birds that would fly over the crater, and they would even dip down into the crater," he said. "We found out that they were chasing the moths and other insects that were attracted to the light of the fire at night."
Turkmenistan, which is located north of Iran and east of the Caspian Sea, is run by an autocratic dictatorship, so one of the biggest struggles the National Geographic team faced when embarking on this journey was simply getting permission to enter the country, a process that took Kourounis two years.
Darvaza flaming gas crater at dawn. Light from the crater illuminates dust in the air above the crater. (Photo/George Kourounis)
He compared the Turkmenistan government to that of North Korea's, and said he and his team were spied on for the duration of the trip, through bugged hotel phones, secret police officers posing as their drivers, and even men in trucks watching them from a distance with binoculars.
Because of the government's strict nature, others who have tried to enter the Gates of Hell have been denied, and Kourounis stands as the only person to have ever reached the bottom -- even holding a record in the Guinness Book of World Records for the 2013 accomplishment.
The Gates of Hell has since become the largest tourist attraction in Turkmenistan, and is now surrounded by fencing, bathrooms and campsites. When the National Geographic team went on the expedition, however, the crater was in a barren location, surrounded only by desert.
"The place is so absolutely beautiful, I found it hypnotizing," Kourounis said. "[It's] this beacon of light, especially at night, it lights up the whole sky."
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