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Turkmenistan: Soviets Greatest Attempt at Finding Hell on Earth

Uppdaterat: 4 nov. 2022

While we are on the topic of Soviet-era mistakes, let's talk about one a bit less devastating, and yet nonetheless interesting incident. My chemistry knowledge has waned quite a bit since high school, but one thing I remember is that certain chemical compounds are easily flammable. Therefore, you would want to avoid those compounds, filling the function as fuel, reacting with oxidants, which fill the function of a catalyst. However, what if that reaction is the solution to a dangerous problem? What could be the consequences of that? One answer to that question is found in Turkmenistan, in the form of an eternally burning pit (To Hell!).

Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan. Commonly known as "Door to Hell", due it having burned since 1971. Source: Dale Johnson/Getty Images

If you have only heard of Turkmenistan by name, then you belong to an understandably large majority of the world population, as Turkmenistan hasn't really put itself on the map. In short, Turkmenistan like its fellow -Stan brethren, is a former USSR state located in Central Asia. Its small population of 6 million people, and relatively humble size of 491,210 km2 is not at all indicative of the fact that the country possesses the fourth largest reserves of natural gas. It is a country rich in natural resources, history, but unfortunately not much else. The former is what got the former Soviet state in trouble, or rather what attracted trouble to it.

With that said, picture this. You are a vassal state to one of the two superpowers during the Cold War, with large amount of natural resources readily available in your land. As you can imagine, those natural resources will not be going untouched for long, and in Darvaza 1971 the Soviets thought the same. What they did not expect however during the drilling, was the collapse of a natural gas pocket which risked letting the dangerous gas Methane leak to nearby towns. The solution to this newfound issue was simple, exploit the gas combustible nature in order to consume it rather than letting it emission. The geologists thought that it would burn for a few weeks. Now I am not one to make accurate predictions, but I have to say that it is quite impressive to be off by more than 50 years.

Statues in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's Capital. There is a LOT of golden statues in the country, a hallmark sign of an impoverished population with a vain dictator. Source: US Embassy

While their prediction was a bit off, their thesis holds true which means that today the Darvaza Crater poses no real issue in its current condition. On the contrary, it is actually a somewhat popular tourist attraction generating much-needed tourism revenue for the country. Interesting to note about the crater's origin, is that there are actually contradicting statements between the Turkmenistan claims and the historical Soviet archives. As such, the time span of when the crater might have collapsed is between 1960-1980. Verification has been hard as the Soviet inheritors have kept the documents about its origins classified.

There have been discussions regarding extinguishing the pit in order to realize the natural resources beneath it, but now there is also another aspect of the discussion that has halted those plans, which is the greenhouse effect. Methane is incredibly potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere. It has a global warming potential that is about 25x worse than carbon dioxide in tangible terms, so it has been in everyone's interest to keep it below surface level.

It is clearly a "hot spot" for romantic getaways. Source: Teresa Otto

Environmental issues, however, are not something developing countries have shown to prioritize, as shown for example in Brazil's continuous deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, most likely since developed countries have not been leading as an example on that front. Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the recently elected president and coincidentally son to the previous president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has been clear that he wishes for the famous tourist attraction to be extinguished which does not bode well for the rest of the world, Turkmenistan included.

Nevertheless, a task force has been assembled in order to find a reasonable solution to the issue, so only time can tell how long the gates to hell will be open.

Gateway drug...I mean Wikipedia article... about Soviet disasters: Soviet Disasters

Articles about the Darvaza Crater and Turkmenistan that may interest you and largely influenced this article:

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Leo Lilja
Leo Lilja
May 04, 2022

Very interesting stuff, never heard of this before!

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