Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ring of Fire

I was reading an article on Turkmenistan in my dad’s December 12-18 2009 issue of The Economist, and it mentioned something called the Darvaza Gas Crater, describing it as “a giant red pit belching gases and flames into the night sky, created 30-40 years ago when a drilling platform sank through the earth’s surface.” It sounded like an impressive site to behold, and I was surprised I had never heard of this before. Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued.

Interestingly enough, it’s difficult to locate a definitive history of this site, but most reports date the creation of the crater as 1971 (though some sources date it as far back as 1950). Allegedly, Soviet geologists were drilling for natural gas deposits in the Karakum Desert (in the Derweze area of Turkmenistan) when they hit an underground cavern filled with gas. The ground beneath their drilling rig gave way, collapsing and creating a huge crater 60 meters across and 20 meters deep. Gas was escaping, and the geologists’ solution was to burn the gas off; however, what they thought would be a quick burn has been ablaze ever since. It’s a beautiful sight that can be seen glowing from miles away, but it doesn’t smell quite as pretty as it looks. The crater reeks of burning sulfur; locals have deemed it “The Door to Hell,” and it’s impossible to stand close to the edge for too long due to the odor.

Still interested in visiting? The site is located in central Asia, about 260 kilometers north of Ashgabat – that’s the capital of Turkmenistan for trivia enthusiasts and potential tourists. It's about a 3-hour trek into an unforgiving desert landscape. Also, there isn’t much in the way of permanent structures at the crater. Tourists usually arrange for a local guide, a jeep and supplies to get out to the site and then camp near the crater, since it’s best viewed in the dark.

So are flaming gas pits the norm in Turkmenistan? Turkmenistan holds the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world, so hopefully drillers will be careful. And the country is strengthening its position and lines of distribution. According to energy analyst Peter Paraschos, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was dependent on the Russian-controlled Soviet-era pipeline network to export its natural gas, an arrangement that left the country at Moscow's mercy. However, Turkmenistan has developed new gas pipelines to China and Iran that recently commenced operation, undermining Russia's monopoly on the export of Turkmen gas.

So does this sound like a place you’d like to visit? Check out some cool additional pics here.

Photo Credit: Antonxiii / Flickr