Extinguishing The Inferno…
It may be stated in a crass fashion that there is a considerably large gateway to hell in this world, whose door is about to close soon! This hell is somewhat different from the one that generally comes to our minds first. The hell, popularly known as the Gateway to Hell, has been burning in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan at least for the past five decades.
The 226ft-wide and 98ft-deep hole or crater, filled with methane gas, has been on fire since 1971, as it has been in flames like this – 24/7. Because of this, the 5,350sqmt Gateway to Hell has become one of the major tourist attractions in Turkmenistan. A couple of years ago, BBC had reported that the Gateway to Hell used to attract around 6,000 tourists per year. In 2018, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov officially renamed the crater as the ‘Shining of Karakum’.
It is said that in 1971, geologists of the erstwhile Soviet Union had started drilling in the Karakum Desert near the Darvaza crater about 260km north of Ashgabat in search of oil. It is further stated that although they found natural gas reserves in that area, the soil collapsed and a huge crater was created during the drilling process. With methane gas forcing itself out of that crater, the geologists stopped drilling. It is again said that as the gas was polluting the environment, the Soviet geologists had intentionally set it on fire, to prevent the spread of methane, and it is thought to have been burning continuously ever since.
In the second week of January 2022, President Berdimuhamedow announced that the Gateway to Hell would be closed forever, as his Government was trying to extinguish the fire. According to the President, a single mistake is damaging the environment, apart from having an impact on human health in nearby villages. He believes that Turkmenistan failed to use its natural resources in a proper manner. “We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the wellbeing of our people,” stressed President Berdimuhamedow. He further said: “Existing anomalies have hindered the accelerated industrial development of the subsoil riches of central Karakum.”
Canadian adventurer George Kourounis, the first person to go inside the crater in 2013 as a part of an expedition funded by National Geographic, had taken soil samples from within the crater. Later, the adventurer claimed that he found a sign of “microbial life-forms that are thriving in the hot, methane-rich environment”. He further claimed that the scientists were able to find bacteria living amidst the burning crater, stressing: “The most important thing was that they were not found in any of the surrounding soil outside of the crater.”
Experts are of the opinion that Turkmenistan has decided to close the Gateway to Hell in order to stop methane leaks, as the gas is harmful for the environment. Earlier, the UN Environment Programme said in a statement: “Methane is the primary contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas, exposure to which causes one million premature deaths every year. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year period, it is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.”
It may be noted that Turkmenistan has been at the centre of methane leakages. In 2019, Bloomberg reported that out of the 50 most severe methane gas leakages onshore oil and gas operations, 31 were in the Central Asian country. Most importantly, one of these leakages “had a climate impact roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of all the cars in Arizona”!
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