The World’s Most Beautiful Ecological Disaster

The World’s Most Beautiful Ecological Disaster

The locals call it Hell’s Door.

Environmentalists call it an unmitigated ecological disaster zone.

You may call it a destination on your next adventure vacation.

The “it” in question is a giant firey gas pit near the village of Darwaza (also spelled Derweze) in the middle of Turkmenistan’s Kara-Kum Desert.

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The story behind this unusual attraction goes like this:

In 1971, when Turkmenistan was a republic of the Soviet Union, the state energy company was drilling in the desert near Darwaza. That’s when they accidentally bored into an underground cavern filled with natural gas! The drilling, combined with the sudden release of the pressure that the gas was exerting on the walls, caused the cavern ceiling to crumble.

Those working at the drill site were surprised (to say the least) to have suddenly collapsed the ground beneath them. Spot Cool Stuff, having no geologists on staff, is not in a position to judge whether the geologists at Darwaza in 1971 should have known the cavern was there. But what they did after the collapse seems to us to be . . . what’s the phrase? . . . incredibly stupid. The geologists decided to clear the cavern of the natural gas by setting it on fire.

It has been burning since.

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The spectacle of this large burning gap in the ground is rather amazing to witness. Obviously, it’s most amazing at night when the red glow of the flames from Hell’s Gate are visible from up to 40 km (25 miles) away. The cater itself is about 75 meters (250 feet) at its widest point.

The intense heat of the fire makes it difficult to stand near the carter’s edge for more than two or three minutes at a time. This is probably for the best: The fumes coming from the crater are toxic.

Visiting Hell’s Door

Independent travel in Turkmenistan, while certainly possible, is a tough slog. (Yours truly co-authored one of the first travel guidebooks that covered Turkmenistan following its independence). From the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, Darwaza is a bumpy four hour car ride. There’s no hotel there, though locals have been known to rent yurts to the smattering of independent visitors that come to see Hell’s Door.

The easier way to visit is with a tour company. A handful of them — Keystone Journeys, for example — include Hell’s Door on their itineraries. The coolest tour company that runs genuinely fun small group trips to Turkmenistan, Intrepid Travel, sadly bypasses Darwaza.

updated: 22 Nov 2013
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Responses

  1. Steve says:

    I can put it out cheaply, capturing the gas at the same time.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Steve,

    OK, we’ll bite. What’s your plan for doing that?

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nazar says:

    In Turkmenistan water is scarce and gas is abundant. As far as I know, the gas beneath the crater is impossible to gather, or even if possible, its financially inefficient. So They can’t get it, they cant put it off. So it just stays there and makes a nice PR for the country. It might be a mistake of soviets to light it up, but it’s definitely not mistake of current government. Its just efficient to let it be this way.

    Disclaimer: I am from Turkmenistan.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Dave says:

    This is an awesome sight but I honestly cant believe that there wasn’t a geologist on site!

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Ann Onnimus says:

    Methane is far more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, so setting the cavern afire actually was not such a terrible idea, comparatively speaking. It also has historical precedent…. miners often used to clear gas by burning it, and that’s fine as long as the methane isn’t being constantly replenished by other sources deeper underground, as is the case here. Unfortunately, they clearly didn’t know that.

    This gas is being wasted, and that’s probably the real tragedy here. Maybe they could use the heat being produced for steam power…

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Nixon says:


    Twitter:
    I wonder what the aliens flying around this location think about it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. eric says:

    fill it up with water?

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. staz says:

    oftopic: russia aint biggest on neither oil or gas.. their high on oil even tho they aint exporting it like norway.
    ontopic: stupid people burning TONS of precious resources instead of doing something to try collect it..
    bet its those assholes thats making clima change too bcus of this…
    if u can’t run a country/busines then let go so others CAN!!

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. cellogirl33 says:

    My Social Studies showed us a powerpoint about this and I’m bored so I decided to look it up and do it for my Social Studies Project on ‘Things That Might End The World’ and try to get some extra credit. :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. jessiev says:


    Twitter:
    that is so beautiful – and so crazy! wow – you never know, do you? not sure i’d go there, though…

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Kads says:

    I did read somewhere that the reason for them lighting the gas was that the gas was poisonous and so to prevent it from escaping and affecting other areas they decided to light it!

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Spot Cool Travel Stuff says:

    Hi Aadil,

    I am not an oil and gas engineer like you are but I’ve been around enough to know that every profession has its less-than-intelligent members.

    Further, every day on this planet engineers set gas on fire purposely, through the process of flaring, for example.

    Now, is it possible that the engineers had a reasonable justification for doing what they did in Darwaza in 1971? Absolutely! Might it have even seemed like a brilliant idea at the time? Hard for me to imagine personally but, yeah, I suppose it might have. In hindsight, did it turn out to be a powerfully bad idea? You can go to Darwaza and judge for yourself.

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Aadil says:

    Dont take me wrong, am not a soviet sympathetic, but there has to be a reasonable justification for this phenomena and not just mere stupidity. Am an oil and gas engineer myself and trust me there have never been stupid people in oil and gas business. Soviets have been producing and operating gas wells for decades probably in more quantities than all the world combined so, if I may say, lets give the devil its due. Putting even a gallon of oil on fire is unthinkable in this industry, what to talk about putting gas in a cavern on fire.

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. Harold Mann says:

    LOL @ Soviet era scientists.

    [Reply to this comment]

  14. stretch limo hire says:

    Wow, I stand amazed at the discoveries I stamble upon daily. That indeed is the best ecological disaster.

    [Reply to this comment]

  15. Dan@currency converter says:

    Wow I never heard of this, nice read and very interesting thing. I agree what they did was very stupid, perhaps it would have been better to try and capture the gas. Bet nobody thought about how much gas was there before setting it on fire :)

    Dan@currency converter’s last blog post..JPY : 97.82

    [Reply to this comment]

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