Darvaza Gas Crater: Welcome to “The Gates of Hell”

Deep in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan lies the Darvaza Gas Crater, also known as the Gates of Hell. In this episode of Natural Wonders, we explore this wild phenomenon.

This fiery pit has been burning since the 1970s when Turkmenistan was still under Soviet rule. In the distant past, the Karakum Desert was an obscure corner of the Silk Road, but its modern economy is much more robust, thanks to rich deposits of oil and gas. Although there is some dispute about the origin of the crater, the most common explanation states that in 1971, a drilling rig broke into a giant underground gas chamber, which collapsed, taking the rig with it. That initial breakthrough caused other areas to crumble, eventually making a crater 70m wide and 20m deep.

The only people in the area live in a tiny community of 350 camel herders and rug makers called Darvaza. That whole region is so unpopulated that some mapmakers put little Darvaza on globes of the world, seemingly just to add a splash of humanity.

A woman ties knots for a handmade carpet in Darvaza, Turkmenistan. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Although the village was some distance away, the noxious fumes — methane — that leaked from the crater killed some of the desert wildlife and threatened explosions. Soviet authorities decided to set fire to it, expecting the gas to burn itself off in a few weeks. It’s a common practice in oil and gas drilling to burn away excess methane — a process called flaring.

This time, however, it was not a good calculation: Turkmenistan contains the world’s sixth-largest deposit of natural gas, and this turned out to be one of the largest methane pockets in the world. It has continued to burn…and burn…and burn to this day. Over the years, the Gates of Hell has released over 3,796,784 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, according to one study. 

Don’t slip: A tourist stands on the edge of Hell. Photo: Shutterstock


The high smells of methane and sulfur travel on the winds for many miles. The crater is visible across the desert at night, but its heat is quite localized. As you get closer, you begin to feel what it is like to be baked in an oven. The interior measures a blistering 97.2˚C. Reportedly, the temperature at the centre is slightly cooler, but not by much.

Canadian storm chaser and explorer George Kourounis donned a protective suit and rappeled down into the crater itself to collect samples of extremophiles — organisms able to survive extremes of cold, heat, salinity, and pressure. Astrobiologists love extremophiles because they suggest what kind of life to look for on other planets. Kourounis found some bacteria living comfortably in their own fiery ecosystem. 

George Kourounis descends into the crater. Photo: George Verschoor


After visiting the site in 2010, Turkmenistan president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow considered sealing the crater but eventually allowed it to continue burning. Weirdly, it’s become the most famous tourist site in this eccentric country, and foreigners can visit it from the country’s capital city of Ashgabat, 250 kilometres away.